In the United States, the price of education is rising faster than health care costs. A recent analysis by The New York Times found that college tuition has shot up by 559% since 1985. At the same time, digital innovation is providing new options for students — the classroom is becoming virtual with the advent of relatively inexpensive yet powerful tablet devices and the increased availability of free education online.

The leading online education source is Coursera, which offers free virtual classes and certification from top American universities, such as Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. Two computer science professors at Stanford University, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, founded Coursera, which has enrolled hundreds of thousands of students from almost every single country around the world since its launch.

Speaking with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton at a recent TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Koller explained Coursera’s aims, and why free online education will help people around the world, including the Middle East. "We are executing a vision to educate the most people we possibly can," she said.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why did you decide to start Coursera?

Daphne Koller: We saw the big success of the Stanford free online courses with an enrollment of 100,000. We decided to focus on impacting the largest number of people. In order to do this, we needed to take this out of Stanford and make it available through as many top universities as we could, so they could offer amazing content to the world’s populations everywhere around the world.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What led you to create Coursera? How is it different from previous online coursework?

Koller: One of the things that make this effort unique is that it’s not passive content. It’s a real online course experience. It’s not just about a bunch of videos and maybe some problem sets and some course notes. On any given day, there is weekly coursework, weekly assessments, and the assessments are graded. We give feedback so we know they are learning. [Students] have the opportunity to improve their performance if they didn’t get it right the first time. At the end, they get a certificate of completion to say you completed the course and you understand the material. The certificates are actually useful for them in getting a job and in some cases, of getting them credit into higher educational institutions.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How long has Coursera been in the making?

Koller: We started the company in December. We started operations in January and started offering the first courses at the end of February, but we were still in stealth mode at the time. It was kind of a bizarre experience. On the one hand, we had hundreds of thousands of students. On the other hand, we were still in stealth mode so we weren’t really saying who we were. It was an interesting experience. And then in April we basically announced we were in partnership with Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan. And we’ve been basically operating ever since.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: This is a start-up company, but in addition you have research and computer science teaching duties at Stanford. How do you do all that?

Koller: It is a whole other job. Because of that, I’m on leave from Stanford because this is really a start-up of an entire business.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Because you received US$16 million from two Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Coursera will turn a profit at some point?

Koller: We’re a social entrepreneurship company, so that means we’re a commercial entity with a social mission. We try to make sure those two interests are aligned. We are executing a vision to educate the most people we possibly can while being a viable venture.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: At this point, how many students do you have in how many countries?

Koller: When I checked on July 5th [2012], we had 670,000 students in pretty much all countries. I think it was over 190 but I didn’t count it exactly.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In another article, you mentioned that many of your students seem to be professionals who might be honing their skills or adding to their skills. Do they sign up because they don’t have access to these courses, such as the ones you teach at Stanford?

Koller: Yes, many students don’t have access to high-quality education in large parts of the world, or it is not readily available. Even in the United States, you might argue the education is there to be had but often at a very significant cost, whether it’s money or a time commitment. This gives people everywhere, including in the United States, the option of basically improving their education for free and on their own time. We would really love them to aspire to a better life in some way.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You spoke about a father who had a daughter who was immune deficient and couldn’t leave the house because he was afraid he would infect her. Can you tell us that story?

Koller: That story was particularly touching because it also had a happy ending. This was a father whose daughter had an immune disease and while she was undergoing chemotherapy, he couldn’t go out. He corresponded with us later, saying that his daughter was doing much better. He sent us a wonderful picture of the family. She was perky and alert and it was wonderful to see that. At the same time, he said because of the courses he took with us, he was able to get a database internship that is basically letting him get a job. It’s a wonderful story.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Coursera incorporates test taking into the online course work. Only 65% of students received a certificate of completion. Why did you feel it was important to maintain this high standard?

Koller: Part of the mission we have is a commitment to high academic standards. We want to make sure that when we’re giving someone an education, it’s a meaningful education; something that gives them significant skills and the trust that it’s a meaningful qualification when you’re deciding to hire someone.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Your co-founder Andrew Ng discussed with Thomas Friedman in The New York Times that an Iranian student downloaded the class videos and burned them onto CDs. How has this open-education platform encouraged innovative ways to distribute learning?

Koller: It’s certainly happening and there’s a lot of interest in distributing our coursework in a whole variety of ways. It was a very nice story about an Iranian student who was trying to help his fellow countrymen who had connectivity problems. He downloaded all of Ng’s videos and burned CDs that he then distributed to people.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In another article, you mentioned how Coursera can match employers with students who might potentially do well with computer science and genomics.

Koller: The courses are not about getting certificates, but it’s more important to complete a class. I think it’s providing a tremendous service to both sides. Although there’s rampant unemployment in large parts of the world, including the United States, there is also a skill gap for a large number of positions that are going unfilled. I think if we make the introduction between people with particular set of skills and an employer looking for that kind of person, you’re doing a service to everyone. A student finds a job and the employer finds a skilled employee. You’re closing the unemployment gap.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’re from Israel. Can you think of ways this could benefit different places in the Middle East?

Koller: I think the Middle East is definitely one of those places where the skill gap is particularly significant. There are huge amounts of unemployment, especially for young people in many countries in the Middle East. If you ask young people in the Middle East what they would really like, one of the top three answers in almost every survey I’ve seen is access to education and access to jobs. I think those two go together. I think by providing this kind of education for people in the Middle East, for everyone, you can get access to high-paying, high-quality jobs that one can have with a good education. You can help bring prosperity, reduce extremism, which is often a consequence of poverty and lack of opportunity. By opening up opportunities, I think we can make the Middle East a better place to live.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see a number of students in the Middle East signed up for Coursera classes?

Koller: We do but I think we can see more. We’re definitely trying to reach out to organizations in the Middle East. We’re starting to work with both governments and NGOs with the goal of taking our content and making it more accessible, especially in the developing world. There are also underserved populations in the United States. Part of our goal here, which is part of being a social entrepreneurship company, is to really reach out to underserved populations and make sure everyone has access.