Reports Of Massive Disruption To Higher Ed From MOOCs Greatly Exaggerated

Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera

Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera

Some of Coursera’s rivals tout the fact that they are non-profit and can make decisions devoid of a profit motive that gives them an advantage. Universities have to do a 50-50 split with Coursera on the revenue they get from students who want a verified certificate which typically costs $49. Is Coursera’s for-profit model a disadvantage?

No. The big advantage of a for-profit structure in this business is the quality of the talent we can attract by being able to offer people compensation that involves an upside. We are an attractive place to work. The mission we have does attract and inspire young bright people because they believe in what we are doing. We can move faster, too. EdX has done some interesting things and they have some quality courses but this is the right structure for this opportunity.

How will online learning change the educational landscape in the near term, say over the next five years?

We are going to see people’s economic opportunities substantially enhanced as the labor market recognizes these credentials. That is the main near-term consequence. It is growing really rapidly and it serves a valuable social function. It is a new means of advancing yourself in the workplace. And it is working. We have done a study with researchers at a partner university of 60,000 to 80,000 learners who completed courses and asked them the reason they took a course. Some 52% took MOOCs because they view them as a career benefit. And 87% of them claimed they got career benefits from taking a course, while 34% got a material benefit: a promotion, a raise, a new job, or started a business.

There are a few interesting survey results that favor developing countries, too. Learner outcomes are similar between developed and developing countries. But learners from lower socio-economic backgrounds report higher career benefits than those from higher socio- economic status in developing countries. So in those countries, we are not just hitting the elites. We are reaching people from lower strata.

In five to ten years, online credentials will be very significant. Employers already are beginning to say that certificates would be valuable in a job application. Google did a blog post on this recently, listing certificates in computer science. LinkedIn has created an area to list online certificates under the field for education. Now you list your degrees and you list your certificates. Even though we are a startup, Coursera is the second most commonly listed certificate on LinkedIn after Microsoft and we are ahead of Cisco which has had a certificate program going for decades. Predictably, we are soon to be number one. We are getting there. Everything takes time, but for a three-year startup we have a lot to be pleased about.

We will also see the use of these MOOCs as a foundation for in-house training programs by employers and government agencies. In Singapore, they are paying more than 1,000 people to take our data science sequence of courses. They have looked around and said the best thing out there is to take the Johns Hopkins University data sequence from Coursera. We’ll see more of that kind of thing because it is such an efficient way to give training.

Five years is too soon for a lot of change in the structure of formal higher education. That is more likely to occur over a couple of decades. But the more near term the combination of open access MOOCs and online degree programs will become very important parts of institutional strategies at our top universities. They will not only be major sources of revenue but major vehicles for enhancing an institution’s standing. The rankings of global universities, which matter a lot, will include a component that measures your global impact through online programs. So the quality and reach of your online programs will be explicitly part of assessing whether your university is top class or not.

If one of the metrics in assessing an institution is how many millions of people you reach and over what range of subject areas, it will help change the game in determining whether an institution is really globally influential. Right now, you measure the quality and quantity of your research and what employers say about your programs. In the near future, it could be how many lives are you touching? Instead of touching 10,000 to 100,000 people, now we could be talking millions.

And what’s next for Coursera?

Mainly, we’re focused on recruiting more universities as partners. Our co-founder Daphne did an astonishing job of bringing on the first 80 partners in a year’s time. The number of top universities who signed up early on was really impressive. We are growing the numbers more strategically in trying to recruit the top universities. We just signed on six of the top nine universities in China, the three top universities in Brazil, and we have six or seven of the top ten in France.

We have been sub-titling a lot of the lectures and fully translating the courses and that has a big impact on the number of learners. Just adding subtitles alone doubles the number of students who enroll in the course and adding the full translation doubles it again. We started doing translations a year ago, but only a fraction of the courses have been translated.

Our revenue (which is not disclosed publicly) has been growing at a very healthy rate. We don’t have plans to monetize further, but there are definite possibilities. We could develop the capacity for higher touch interaction with professors for a premium price. We’re actually developing a product that is specifically geared at companies who want to integrate MOOCs with their own training programs so it would be customized experience. We are onto a good idea.