Coursera Condescension

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won a Fulbright, we are told, thanks to his Coursera expertise. Because the fact is, Koller informs us, there is “not very much computer education to be had in Peru.” Only Coursera could give him this opportunity, dedicated as the company is to “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.”

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to call bullshit. Because I’ve been to Lima (and Cuzco and Trujillo and Huamanga…) and pretty much all you see are endless adverts for computer courses at the multitude of local colleges and universities. Try for instance, the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas or the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Or even the venerable Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which has been teaching computing for over seventy years. Heck, this October you could take part in the V Congreso Internacional de Computación y Telecomunicación, hosted at the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

What, did Koller think they live in mud huts down there?

In fact, if this is the same Raúl Coaguila whose user page you can find on the Coursera site (and it’s likely: 24 year old male from Lima, Peru, with a strong interest in computing), then in fact he did his BA in software engineering at (precisely) the aforesaid Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas. Indeed, his LinkedIn profile suggests that he has been teaching there for the past three years.

Now, none of this is to say that putting Coursera on his CV didn’t help Raúl in his Fulbright application. Nor that he isn’t a Coursera fan. On the contrary: he’s clearly heavily involved in the site, listing 21 courses from “Machine Learning” to “Introduction to Guitar.” (It’s not clear how many–if any–of these he’s completed.) And he’s satisfied with his experience enough to encourage his followers on Twitter to vote for the company as “Best Education Startup” in the 2012 Crunchie Awards. Sadly for Raúl, they only came second, losing out to Codecademy. But he’s also a fan of sky-diving (hardly a regular past-time of Lima’s urban poor), and who knows if that influenced his Fulbright assessors just as much, if not more, than his application’s mention of Coursera.

Let me stress that in no way do I want to suggest that Raúl Coaguila is an undeserving recipient of a Fulbright. I wish him well in his future studies (and hope he takes care with his sky-diving).

But I do object to the romanticized pathos invoked by Koller (here and increasingly as her talk goes on): the conceit that Coursera’s object is to lift up the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and the Third World more generally. Or the notion that North American universities’ participation with her company is the best way to make up for lack of educational capacity in the global South. Beyond the immense condescension and ignorance that it betrays on her part, I bet she isn’t spinning this line to her venture-capital investors. And I’d rather she didn’t spin it to us.