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Online Education


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Like many of you, Im one of the lucky people. I was born to a family where education was pervasive. Im a third-generation PhD, a daughter of two academics. In my childhood, I played around in my fathers university lab. So it was taken for granted that I attend some of the best universities, which in turn opened the door to a world of opportunity.

Unfortunately, most of the people in the world are not so lucky. In some parts of the world, for example, South Africa, education is just not readily accessible. In South Africa, the educational system was constructed in the days of apartheid for the white minority. And as a consequence, today there is just not enough spots for the many more people who want and deserve a high quality education. That scarcity led to a crisis in January of this year at the University of Johannesburg. There were a handful of positions left open from the standard admissions process, and the night before they were supposed to open that for registration, thousands of people lined up outside the gate in a line a mile long, hoping to be first in line to get one of those positions. When the gates opened, there was a stampede, and 20 people were injured and one woman died. She was a mother who gave her life trying to get her son a chance at a better life.

But even in parts of the world like the United States where education is available, it might not be within reach. There has been much discussed in the last few years about the rising cost of health care. What might not be quite as obvious to people is that during that same period the cost of higher education tuition has been increasing at almost twice the rate, for a total of 559 percent since 1985. This makes education unaffordable for many people.

Finally, even for those who do manage to get the higher education, the doors of opportunity might not open. Only a little over half of recent college graduates in the United States who get a higher education actually are working in jobs that require that education. This, of course, is not true for the students who graduate from the top institutions, but for many others, they do not get the value for their time and their effort.

Tom Friedman, in his recent New York Times article, captured, in the way that no one else could, the spirit behind our effort. He said the big breakthroughs are what happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. Ive talked about whats desperately necessary. Lets talk about whats suddenly possible.

Whats suddenly possible was demonstrated by three big Stanford classes, each of which had an enrollment of 100,000 people or more. So to understand this, lets look at one of those classes, the Machine Learning class offered by my colleague and cofounder Andrew Ng. Andrew teaches one of the bigger Stanford classes. Its a Machine Learning class, and it has 400 people enrolled every time its offered. When Andrew taught the Machine Learning class to the general public, it had 100,000 people registered. So to put that number in perspective, for Andrew to reach that same size audience by teaching a Stanford class, he would have to do that for 250 years. Of course, hed get really bored.

So, having seen the impact of this, Andrew and I decided that we needed to really try and scale this up, to bring the best quality education to as many people as we could. So we formed Coursera, whose goal is to take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide it to everyone around the world for free. We currently have 43 courses on the platform from four universities across a range of disciplines, and let me show you a little bit of an overview of what that looks like.

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