In Conversation with Andrew Ng, Founder, Coursera


  • On Coursera’s vision – how did it all happen?

In 2011, Andrew Ng led the development of Stanford University’s main MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platform and also taught Machine Learning (online) to thousands of students – literally. Perhaps, the early moorings of the vision behind Coursera can be traced back to that period. He had a small team which consisted of a handful of students and they were deeply engaged in creating the early websites – six of them – after having painstakingly spent hundreds of hours interviewing business leaders, academicians and the likes. Right at the beginning, it was apparent that online course delivery was very different from regular classroom-based teaching so the mechanism had to be developed accordingly. The rigour paid off and the initial idea began to germinate – of offering scalable online education which would have a very wide universal appeal and deep impact.  

  • On early challenges of evangelizing the disruptive idea behind MOOCs.

With time and experience, we have come to realize that teaching online is far more effective, and, it is scalable. Like any disruptive idea in its time, this too was not without initial resistance and stakeholders had to be convinced about its efficacy. It needed some doing to reduce friction by reaching out to the academic fraternity and convincing them about its potential.  

  • Creating a niche and staying ahead of competition.

Currently, the platform offers more than 2000 courses. Very little (if anything at all) remains unexplored in the field of education. Right at the inception they were clear about a certain philosophy and adhered to it all along – put the student’s need over everything else! Moreover, the phenomenal success has brought in education partners from world over which has helped tremendously in creating a repository of knowledge / learning & best practices.

  • Artificial Intelligence – now & what the future portends.

He likens it to electricity – the new electricity, if you will! And, its impact is no less revolutionary just as it was in the earlier century (with electricity). Today, the adoption of AI is seen across industries, albeit, some in more advanced stages than others. In reality, we are yet to even explore the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Its true potential can be leveraged only when billions of people use devices which are AI-enabled and experience a whole new level of functionality.

Coursera on its part is focused on providing specialized courses in AI which will empower future talent when this technology proliferates to meet its 10x moment in history. Just as today, many leaders wish that they had crafted a digital strategy earlier to stay relevant, a similar recourse would be required of AI too; and, it’s nearer than we think.

A massive shift in labour (talent) is foreseen. Over the next 10 years, it is estimated that 30% of jobs will be at high risk due to AI. Decidedly, there will be a mismatch marked by a scarcity of high-end talent with niche skills. Sure, technology will disrupt many jobs but equally, it will also result in jobs creation which will require higher application. In India, the numbers are most encouraging – those who acquired new skills which helped them open new doors and explore better opportunities. Impressive data points underscore the significance of online mode of delivery especially in a dynamic environment. Moreover, the accreditation criteria is stringent which adds tremendous value to individual careers.

  • Roll back in time and a chance to do something differently.

Of course, it’s a hypothetical question. Andrew believes, he could have started a lot earlier – perhaps a decade back instead of 2011 – 12. In the early years, a substantial amount of time was invested in experimenting to arrive at the right pedagogy. This could have been achieved in a shorter time frame, he believes. Also, the introduction of shorter videos which proved to be most beneficial, could have been done earlier including the emphasis on quizzes aimed towards gaining expert knowledge.

  • Business pivots & leadership mantra.
  1. On-boarding academicians of international repute and inducting them as part of the board to leverage their foresight in strategic decision making.
  2. The rapid adoption of Coursera courseware by enterprises and governments as well.

Mantra: Always have a “learner’s first” approach. World’s best education is not only imparted by world class universities but some of the top-notch companies (like Google) are doing an equally good job. The quality of pedagogy in these “institutions” are of a very high standard which has raised the bar quite incredibly. And of course, the vision of providing universal access to education worldwide.

  • The “WOW” factor he is expecting at WCIT-NILF next month.

He would like to use this opportunity to learn more about India, its communities and explore ways in which he can provide support. He hopes to spend a lot of time with the Indian tech community and pick up new ideas in his chosen field especially AI. He expects the other speakers to be of very high standard and would like to spend a considerable amount of time just listening in as a participant and soaking it all in. 

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