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For Daphne Koller, the past year has been nothing short of “surreal.”

It’s taken little time for Koller, one of the two co-founders of Coursera, to make the jump from a computer science professor at Stanford University to one of the largest names in the startup community — as well as one of the most sought-after commentators on the future of higher education.

Koller took some time at this weekend’s inaugural Coursera Partners’ Conference to sit down and speak with The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Daily Pennsylvanian: A year ago, few outside the Stanford bubble had even heard about Coursera, let alone the notion of a massive open online course. What has the rapid growth we’ve seen in Coursera and in [massive open online courses] over the past year been like for you?

Daphne Koller: It’s been surreal. It changes not every week or every day, but every hour, and I think it’s just a constant surprise to us how quickly the landscape is shifting.

DP: You’ve often spoken about students across the globe having a “universal right to education.” Clearly, though, there are a lot of students in the developing world who don’t have access to internet. What role do you see Coursera playing in serving those students?

DK: I think clearly there are well-known digital divides around the world — to a certain extent it’s an issue in the United States as well, where certain people only have access to internet at a local library or other facility. I think that’s a problem that Coursera can help contribute a solution to, but it’s something that we as a society have to solve more broadly. It transcends the issue of access to Coursera or similar content. Fortunately, I think this is something that many societies are working hard to solve, either by government intervention or through philanthropic work.

DP: Penn recently announced a tuition hike for the 2013-14 school year, and it’s clear that next year will be the last in which students are paying less than $60,000 annually for their education. With MOOCs becoming increasingly popular, do you see the value of a Penn degree being diminished in any way?

DK: No, because I think there’s something unique about residential learning. And it’s not just residential learning — it’s an educational experience that gives you an immediate, direct relationship with someone who’s a top scholar in their field, or with fellow classmates who have similar goals, aspirations and intellectual abilities as you. I think that’s a truly valuable experience, and if you have the opportunity to be part of it, you should.

At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that not everybody — in fact, the vast majority of people around the world — has access to a University of Pennsylvania-level education. If what we can do through Coursera is give them access to something that is so much better than what they have now, even if it’s not quite the same as Penn quality, then I think we’ve done our job.

DP: Speaking of Penn, how would you describe the role that the University has played in Coursera’s growth?

DK: As I think is widely known, Penn was one of our first four university partners. Without going into the gory details, I’ll say there were moments in time when it wasn’t clear which direction this would go and whether we could even launch this kind of effort. It is, after all, a little bit scary opening up education that had previously been cloistered in this environment. Penn’s support was absolutely essential in moving this forward. I’m very grateful specifically to President Gutmann and to [Provost] Vincent Price for helping to make this possible.

DP: Some small institutions have recently spoken out against Coursera’s operating practices, claiming that it’s especially difficult for non-members of the Association of American Universities to partner with the company. Does Coursera have any plans to open up membership opportunities to some of these smaller schools?

DK: I think there is a balance that’s complicated between wanting to be more inclusive and provide education for more institutions, while at the same time being cognizant of our limited ability to support a larger number of partners, especially ones that are smaller and might be less well resourced. I think it’s something that we have to tread a fine line between — being too exclusive and being too inclusive. At the end of the day, what we want to make sure we’re preserving the high-quality content we offer.

DP: Lastly, what have these past few days at the Coursera Partners’ Conference been like for you?

DK: It’s been exhausting at times, but I think it’s also been very worthwhile. I’m very glad we did this. For me, the main takeaway is just the incredible level of excitement and energy and transformation this has engendered in the higher education community. It’s a tremendous opportunity to think about how to reshape the ways in which we’re offering education to people around the globe.

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