• April 20, 2014

An Upstart Free Course Provider Holds a Cookout to Meet Its Students

Coursera Cookout

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, the founders of Coursera, speak to attendees at their company's first-ever summer cookout. About 650 students who have taken free, online courses through Coursera made the trip.

Call it a "massive open cookout." Coursera, a company that is working with more than a dozen elite universities to help them run MOOC's, or massive open online courses, held its first official "meetup" here on Saturday for students and professors to connect in person over burgers, chips, and soda.

It was a chance for even the company itself to learn more about what motivates students to take its courses, which bear no official academic credit.

Multimedia

Who visits a massive open cookout? Jeffrey R. Young interviews four Coursera supporters. | Link

With some 900,000 students registered for its courses, everything the small company does seems to get big quickly. More than 1,100 people signed up for the cookout, and in the end about 650 made the trip—some by bike from nearby apartments, some by Zipcar from neighboring San Francisco, and others by plane from across the country. That was so many that company's leaders asked attendees to sign up for one of two slots—one in late morning and the other in the afternoon.

Volleyball and beanbag tossing games were set up, but most of the students seemed happy just to talk—to each other and to the two founders, who wore jeans and blue T-shirts bearing the company's logo. Andrew Ng, a Coursera co-founder and director of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab, was the biggest draw, and he was often circled by dozens of people at once. Most of them had taken Mr. Ng's free course, Machine Learning.

"He's cool," said Yichuan Cao, a 23-year old technology worker from Mountain View, who was one of those gathered around Mr. Ng asking questions and listening to the professor's vision of open education. "He's a rock star."

People's reasons for attending varied widely—some wanted to meet professors they had previously only seen in recorded online videos; some were looking for a job at Coursera, which is hiring; and others wanted to find out how to hire the company's best students.

"My company is a small start-up, and we're looking actually to hire someone who is skilled, so the reason I came is to talk to Andrew and the people and see if they could recommend someone in the class," said an executive who asked not to be named. "People could be very good already and they just need that certificate or they can put on their résumé that they finished the class," she added. "I don't want someone who doesn't have any experience, but I believe there are people who just do it on the side maybe it took them 15 minutes a week, and now they can claim that certificate."

The company is still working on the details of a matchmaking service it plans to offer between students looking for jobs and companies seeking qualified employees. That's one idea it hopes will bring in revenue, along with a plan to charge students who pass the courses a small fee for a certificate. But the business model for Coursera is still a work in progress.

Daphne Koller, the company's other co-founder, who is also a professor at Stanford, said Coursera has been meaning to offer more social events to connect its users, but just hasn't had time as it quickly builds its software platforms and works to sign up more universities. But students have already been organizing their own in-person study groups via social-media networks, including Facebook and Meetup.com.

Among those students is Kimberly Spillman, a 38-year-old from San Diego who was in town for the weekend. She has met dozens of new friends through online learning, thanks to groups like CompScisters, a Facebook group for women taking free science and technology courses through Coursera or through other new providers, including Udacity and edX. "My whole world has changed since taking these classes," she said. "All of the sudden I'm meeting people that I've never met, and we're talking about the class together, which was motivating me to keep up with the class, and we'd hang out afterward."

Several of the students interviewed at the event had no plans to buy a certificate, even if they cost less than $100, as leaders have suggested. Some said they are taking the courses for fun, or that they found value in them even without proof that they attended.

Many also noted that they never actually finished a Coursera course—they signed up and did some assignments, but got too busy with life and work to keep up. "It's not like you have to be stressed out about whether you finished this quarter or not," said Mr. Cao, who started but did not finish Mr. Ng's Machine Learning course.

L. John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who is well-known in Silicon Valley, attended the cookout, and said he is an enthusiastic supporter of the effort (he's also on its board of directors).

"I think this could be big the way Google was," he said. "It's doing something very, very valuable for free, so it's going to scale to be enormous."

When Mr. Ng and Ms. Koller formally addressed the crowd, they stood on a picnic table and grabbed microphones to quickly outline their vision.

"As one of the instructors I'm almost constantly amazed that so many of you with busy lives, jobs, family, week after week come back to the Web site to watch the videos and do the homework, which I know is very time-consuming," said Mr. Ng.

Both stressed that their company is meant to be a form of "social entrepreneurship," and Ms. Koller describes the company's goal as a kind of social movement.

"High-quality education will move from being something that is a privilege of the few to being a basic human right," she argued.

Well after the five-hour mega-cookout ended and the last of the burgers had been grilled, Mr. Ng and Ms. Koller stayed around talking to their fans.

Mr. Ng had saved one last business card from the stash he had brought, and he held it up for people to take pictures of with their smartphone so they would have his contact information.

"If any of you want to join us in doing this work and you're a developer, contact us," he told them as they snapped pictures.

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