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A change of course from academia to business: Coursera co-founder and AI master Andrew Ng

At the age of 43, Andrew Ng easily outshines his peers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Born to a Hongkongese family in the UK, the Chinese-American scientist co-founded and led Google’s AI team Google Brain. He later joined Baidu as Chief Scientist, before leaving in 2017 and launching his own start-up Landing AI.

He is not a first-time entrepreneur though. Back in 2012, the then-Stanford professor founded Coursera with his colleague Daphne Koller. Now one of the largest online learning platforms worldwide, Coursera partners with over 100 prestigious universities from 28 countries, offering over 3600 courses to 40 million users, and counting. What gave him the idea? His very own teaching experience in Silicon Valley.

World-renowned computer scientist Andrew Ng co-founded Coursera in 2012 with a colleague. (Coursera website)

The eureka moment: From a class of 35 to 100 thousand

Immediately after his PhD graduation from UC Berkeley in 2002, Andrew secured a research and teaching position at Stanford, focusing on machine learning and AI. Only 35 students registered for his course on machine learning in the first term. The number skyrocketed year after year. “I started to become interested in automation and scaling,” he noted in an interview with The Stanford Daily in 2012.

Since 2008, he started offering part of his lectures online for free. “In Silicon Valley, I often run into people who’ve taken my online courses, which led me to realise the huge potential in online education.” Andrew was grateful for dwelling in the global innovation centre – otherwise, he might not have received such positive feedback that drove him to expand his tiny project.

In October 2011, Andrew started a real-time online course on (you’ve guessed it) machine learning. Enrolment figures were as high as 100 thousand, 23,000 of which completed the course “substantially”, while 13,000 received a “certificate of completion”. If Andrew had to instruct this many students face-to-face, “I would have to teach normally at Stanford for 250 years.”

Coursera’s business is ever-expanding; corporate training has grown into one of its main streams of income. (Coursera website)

The recipe for success: Empathy

With the experience, Andrew and his partner gave up their teaching positions the next year and founded Coursera, with a similar mission as Khan Academy (another online learning platform) – to encourage students to learn according to their own pace.

On his key to success, CEO Andrew was quick to answer. “The teacher-student relationship.” He believes that the most fruitful programmes are designed by empathetic teachers, who take into consideration of students’ backgrounds and desired changes, then fine-tune their course topics and assignments accordingly.

In its 7th year, Coursera is still growing. Aside from free courses, it has developed paid courses and university degree programmes (CUHK being one of their partnering institutions in Hong Kong), as well as corporate training. Their ability in fundraising is not to be underestimated – over US$310 million raised in total (CrunchBase) and a company valuation at US$1 billion (Techcrunch). Coursera has established itself as a unicorn of the education sector.

Andrew is no longer a part of Coursera daily operations. He revealed in interviews his recent focus on promoting AI applications in the business sector.

“Maximising” beneficiaries: The complementarity of academia and businesses

The computer scientist’s greatest wish is to transform his research outputs into products that benefit as many users as possible. Once a full-time academic, Andrew understands that universities are not “product organisations” – they are traditionally not best at commercialisation and may not reach a massive audience directly. “It helps to have worked in the private sphere.”

While running his AI start-up, Andrew still teaches at Coursera and Stanford as an Adjunct Professor, upholding his vision of interconnecting the commercial sector and the academia.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS