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Like many of you, I know Marni Baker Stein. With 25-plus years in the industry, she's known for her astute observations on the higher ed space and creating accessible, student-centered online experiences.Marni Baker Stein, a white woman with gray hair.

For the first time in her career, Marni is moving from the university side to ed tech. In December, she joined Coursera as its new chief content officer.

Today, she’s sharing why she made the jump, what she’s most excited about and the long-term trends for online learning.

Q: What inspired you to move to an ed-tech company after a career in academia?

A: Thanks for chatting with me today, Josh. I’m thrilled to join Coursera and happy to share more about the path that led me here.

Before I discovered my passion for online learning, I was deep in the world of institution building. After college, I worked on several United States Information Agency–sponsored initiatives. In Latvia, Japan and Turkey, I developed education programs built directly around what students and communities needed. I got hooked on helping universities meaningfully close critical gaps in educational access.

After returning to the U.S., I continued to work on expanding access through a wide range of innovative online and hybrid learning initiatives at Penn, Columbia, University of Texas system and, most recently, as chief academic officer and provost at WGU. The chance to lead the country’s largest online, competency-based university let me see firsthand the power of affordability and access at scale—and to deeply appreciate the transformational effects that learner-centered education can have on individuals, their families and their local economies.

During my tenure at WGU in 2020, I returned to my roots of creating global infrastructure programs with the Open Skills Network. In establishing this dynamic, new community, we worked with leading international institutions to solve a common problem: how to create a more equitable labor market by ensuring open access to the infrastructure needed for skills-based hiring. Doing that at scale and during a time when the world desperately needs a solution was invigorating.

Through this work, I realized that it was time for me to take the next big step in my career. With increased automation and now generative AI redefining what jobs will be impacted, the labor market will drastically change—and faster than we initially thought. Institutions must collaborate at an unprecedented scale to close the growing skills gap and create a more equitable future. I am super passionate about this problem space.

So, the choice was a natural one. There is no better team to join right now to impact social and economic mobility on a global scale than Coursera. The fastest growth rates on the platform are in emerging markets, and online learning is helping close the gender gap in STEM.

Confidence’s story really stuck with me. She’s a data analyst in Nigeria who struggled to find work during the pandemic. She completed a genomic data science Specialization from Johns Hopkins University and a professional certification in Google data analytics on Coursera. Her new skills helped her land a job after two years of unemployment. At Coursera, the cause is global, but the impact happens one person at a time. I’m eager to jump in and help learners around the world.

Q: Throughout your career and specifically at Western Governors University, you focused on improving student access and engagement in online learning programs. How will you implement these lessons at Coursera, and what advice would you share with others looking to do the same at their university?

A: Everyone in education is united and motivated by how we can best serve our students. That’s at the heart of all we do, but supporting students online rather than on-campus can look very different. One of the big lessons I learned at WGU, and even before that at the University of Texas system, was how to build truly learner-centric programs at scale.

It comes down to a unique mix of access, engagement and attainment. We create access by building flexible, affordable online programs that remove barriers. We cultivate engagement by integrating high-impact learning pedagogy into our programs and fostering meaningful learning communities. Then, we drive attainment and value by aligning the curriculum with job market needs and providing students the tools and support needed to succeed, from advising and mentorship to career coaching.

I’ve always been incredibly interested in following students, from the moment they enter the program to their graduation, and improving each touchpoint. At Coursera, I’m looking forward to refining this system—and specifically, how we can leverage AI and tech to remove some of the more manual work and allow educators to focus their energy on the activities that truly require a human touch.

If you want to improve student engagement at your institution, my advice is simple. Talk to the students. Interview more learners than you need, and ask the hard questions. Find out where they’re getting stuck and what frustrates them. Ask. Listen. Then organize and build everything around what they need.

Q: Ed tech has undergone a massive transformation over the last few years, first with the rapid option in 2020, followed by the stabilization last year. What trends do you think will stick in the long term, and what are you most excited about?

A: The pandemic propelled us to rethink work and education in a way we collectively hadn’t done in a long time. Why do I have to commute three hours every day to go to an office? Is the lecture really the best use of our time together in the classroom?

How we teach, what we learn and, ultimately, what we do with it in the job market has changed in so many ways.

Flexibility is a big one. People want more control. They want to decide when they work or learn—and the modality that works best for them.

Companies are dropping degree requirements to widen and diversify the talent pool. Employers are putting more stock in microcredentials, and students are following suit. Ninety percent of students said the inclusion of industry microcredentials would make them more likely to enroll in an academic program.

Students are extremely interested in simultaneous learning and earning. They can’t afford to wait four years to realize the ROI of their studies. It will become increasingly critical to offer certificates throughout degree programs and show students how to leverage that to find jobs. This increased emphasis on skills-based education will propel more colleges to partner with companies and infuse industry-based learning into their curriculums.

To deliver on these, institutions will have to work together in new ways to create accessible pathways to jobs and degrees and ultimately help students transform their lives. I’m excited about how this is already happening at Coursera and can’t wait to advance that even more as I dive in.

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