She is no doubt some kind of genius but Coursera chief Professor Daphne Koller doesn’t inhabit some other-worldly dimension in which the enigmatic and the ambiguous are essential vocabulary. She talks common sense, and she talks it good.

Coursera has been in the MOOC business since 2011, today offering 1,948 courses with 145 partners across 28 countries to a not inconsiderable 18 million users. It has a focus on career-related content, in part working to identify the skills employers are looking for through job-posting websites and then asking university partners to add courses in those areas.

MOOCS have well and truly been rinse-washed in the Gartner Hype Cycle – sparked into life by an innovation trigger, then up the peak of inflated expectations, down into the trough of disillusionment, ascending the slope of enlightenment, and now sitting atop the plateau of productivity.

The peak of inflated expectations included speculation that MOOCs would damage the traditional university business model, with students leaving in droves to study and learn in their own time and picking up credentials from top-class universities.

In an interview with Times Higher this week, Koller – also the Rajeev Motwani professor of computer science at Stanford University – demonstrated that none of the hype had washed onto her when she gave a straightforward answer to what MOOC students want:

I don’t think learners care much about whether we are going to destroy universities or not; they are not the target audience for that message. What they care about is that they can take courses from amazing universities at a very affordable cost.”

And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, she was equally forthright about the impact of MOOCs on traditional universities, saying she believed they would not become obsolete:

There’s something magical about a 12-person seminar at Princeton … it’s prestige, it’s socialization, it’s meeting your future spouse and it’s making friends for life.”

Koller told THE that Coursera was working on developing online-only postgraduate degrees and added that it was a possibility full undergraduate degrees might one day be offered. These could be highly beneficial to learners who wanted a more flexible education, delivered in partnership with traditional universities.

Where MOOCs could be revolutionary, she said, was in the transformation of higher education into a data science.

Collecting millions of pieces of information on students’ engagement with regular courses allowed for quick improvement in and experimentation with course content.

This is a place where the technology can inform and then drive educational innovation … It’s turning education into a data science in ways that I don’t think are possible when … in a traditional educational setting … you teach a course once a year and you get a measurement at the end of the semester.”

That’s not hype, it is sound logic. And it suggests that in one area at least – putting student needs front and centre of the learning experience – MOOCs may be a step ahead of their traditional cousins.

DM