The Coursera Revolution: Make EVERY Day Compassion Day

By Shlomo Maital


Daphne Koller

“College,” humorist Mark Twain is alleged to have remarked, “is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”  As a 47-year veteran of college teaching, I find this quip painfully accurate, even if humorist Twain, himself, did not really say it.

    Almost every university teaches innovation, especially those with business schools. Yet, very few actually practice it. In Harvard Yard there is a statue of John Harvard, the clergyman whose deathbed bequest in 1638 established the university named after him. If the statue were to come to life and visit my own classroom, he would feel right at home nearly four centuries later. 

      He might wonder about the PowerPoint, the white boards and students’ noses buried in their cell phones. But he would instantly recognize the droning lecturers reading from their notes while the students diligently write down their instructors’ words in their own notebooks or tablets.     That is why I listened avidly to a recent talk given at Technion on “The Online Revolution: Education for All” by Stanford University Professor Daphne Koller, an Israeli computer scientist who earned her B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees from Hebrew U. when she was only 18.  

     Two years ago, together with her colleague Andrew Ng, head of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence lab, Koller, 46, founded Coursera, today the world’s largest provider of “MOOC’s” (massive open online courses).  After her talk, I had the opportunity to chat with her.  I learned that Coursera currently has 8.3 million users enrolled in 673 courses from 110 partner institutions. Each course is organized and approved by a university or college – a majority of which are outside the US.

      Coursera’s students are about evenly split between the US other developed countries and emerging countries. Some 600,000 students are from India, 530,000 from China and 48,000 from Israel. According to Koller, so far 10,000 years of video have been watched, 44 million quizzes administered, four million peer-graded sessions and 1.25 million courses have been completed. A significant part of Coursera accessing is done through smartphones or tablets and the rest on laptops and desktops. Of the students enrolled, 70 percent are adults over 30.   

    The largest Coursera course, on social psychology, is taught by Wesleyan University’s Scott Plous. Last fall it had 250,000 students enrolled! (The next round of the course begins July 14). How can you interact with a student body equal to the population of Haifa? If each of the quarter million students submitted an assignment on one sheet of paper, the stack would be eight stories high! Rather daunting for a poorly paid teaching assistant.

   “Several homework assignments will encourage you to experiment with your life, observe the results, and analyze what took place,” Plous tells students. Students interact through the Social Psychology online network.      The final assignment of Plous’s course is called “The Day of Compassion”.     Students are asked to live for 24 hours as compassionately as possible and to analyze the experience using social psychology. Roughly 700 students received a perfect score (peer graded) on the assignment, each captured in a video film or a written narrative.  The whole class then voted on which of these 700 students deserved a Day of Compassion Award sponsored by the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). 

     The grand winner was Dr. Balesh Jindal, a physician and artist from a rural area near New Delhi, India. She won the grand prize by finding a way to address the problem of sexual violence towards girls in her community. During the Day of Compassion, she visited a local school with more than 2,000 female students, ages four to 17, from poor backgrounds.

     Jindal taught each of five separate age groups about inappropriate touching and how to report incidents of abuse. These talks uncovered multiple cases of abuse by neighbors, brothers, cousins, and even fathers.  After the Day of Compassion, Jindal invited the mothers of abused girls to her nearby clinic for free counseling. She decided to set aside one day each week to help these girls and to work on reducing child sexual abuse.

      In reading this inspiring account, I was struck by how a single creative teacher like Plous can touch the lives of a quarter of a million students all over the world who, in turn, change the world for countless others using online technology.   

     Thanks, Daphne.  Thanks, Coursera.  Thanks, Scott Plous.  Thanks, Dr. Balesh Jindal.    What if every single one of us, not just those taking Coursera courses, made today, and every day, a Day of Compassion?   What if Compassion 101 became a required course, for membership in Humanity?