Many people have recognized the potential of massive online open courses (MOOCs) to bring education to distant places in the world. Others have speculated on the use of these courses to enhance or even replace some traditional college classes. However, one of the most significant benefits has been little discussed but is already crucial to many people in the working world, both inside and outside the U.S.

In the past two decades, the demand for knowledge workers has grown fast. But technology, which has transformed many sectors, constantly changes the knowledge needed to perform those jobs.

Online open courses help meet that challenge by creating both an opportunity for lifelong learning, and a new legitimacy around the idea that people must constantly acquire new skills and ideas to succeed.

I believe MOOCs can help reframe our understanding of education, so that we see it not as a delineated means to an end – courses taken for a degree or certification — but as a constant process that informs our entire working lives.

MOOCs, created by a handful of innovators in the education space, make it easier, even routine, for everyone to learn all the time. And it’s not just learning, it’s the best learning.

The door to the Ivies is open to everyone.

By partnering with top universities like Stanford, Caltech, Harvard, MIT and Princeton, the MOOC providers make the best classes available to everyone at any phase of their lives. Up until now, access to the highest-quality teaching has been limited to people who were admitted to a handful of universities nationwide.

If you didn’t get into one of the premier schools as an undergraduate or a graduate, that door probably was permanently shut. Going back to school later in life, especially at one of the top schools, has not been a viable option for most people, whether because of cost or the need to maintain a full-time job. Not only do the MOOCs let everyone in, but they do so for free (with perhaps an optional fee for credentialing.)

The interactivity that MOOCs offer is far superior to that offered by older forms of online education, and they have significant advantages over classroom-based education. Studies show interactivity improves learning for most people. Moreover, the new platforms include tools that allow data tracking in unprecedented ways to allow continuous improvement. MOOCs can turn education from a hypothesis-driven field into a data-driven field.

Why is this important for you?

MOOCs open up many additional paths for advancement. Think of the potential for an engineer who takes a class in machine learning to gain a greater understanding of what can be automated. On the flip side: a product manager or marketing director who learns to code could communicate better with engineers, gaining the credibility needed to push an organization forward.

Andrew Ng and I founded Coursera to help students everywhere achieve these goals. Some of the over 1.5 million Americans who have signed up for our classes so far use them to improve their prospects at work. Others use them to change careers entirely, like the vice president of engineering at an international mobile communications company who took Georgia Tech’s Computational Investing course in preparation for a possible career transition into quantitative trading.

A sampling of currently offered Coursera classes

Princeton University Analysis of Algorithms
Princeton University Computer Architecture
Vanderbilt University Data Management for Clinical Research
University of Washington Designing and Executing Information Security Strategies
Columbia University Financial Engineering and Risk Management Part I
University of Virginia Foundations of Business Strategy
University of Pennsylvania The Global Business of Sports
University of Washington Information Security and Risk Management in Context
University of Toronto Learn To Program: The Fundamentals
University of Pennsylvania Intro to Marketing
University of Pennsylvania An Introduction to Financial Accounting
Stanford University Machine Learning
Johns Hopkins University Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp 2
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Metadata: Organizing and Discovering Information
Indian Institute of Technology Delhi Web Intelligence and Big Data

Some people, like an Italian engineer living in San Francisco who took Startup Engineering from Stanford, use our classes to launch businesses. He’s building a company to allow people to share recipes.

Growth comes from ideas – and ideas are born in great numbers in places like the online classrooms of Coursera and our peers.

Students who take one class on Coursera often return for more. This isn’t surprising: If education is better, more convenient and less expensive, and it helps advance careers, then more people will take advantage of it. Before long, the experience of learning becomes integrated into professional lives in ways that it could never be before.

The rising demand for knowledge

I am a computer science professor at Stanford University, focusing on artificial intelligence and machine learning. In those arenas, we constantly push the boundaries of what is possible. This attitude belongs at the center of our approach to education, too. The world is moving forward more rapidly than ever, and so are the ideas and skills required to succeed.

Daphne Koller is Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera.

A Universe of Open Online Learning

To supplement Daphne’s post about online learning, and for the convenience of our clients and readers looking to advance in their careers, Wealthfront researched the many online learning platforms available and compiled them into the list below. We hope you find it helpful.

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About the author(s)

Daphne Koller is Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera. View all posts by Daphne Koller

Related tags

Coursera, Daphne Koller, MOOCs