Coursera, Apple, and the Future of Global Higher Education

Another annoying post where I continue to obsess about the potential of large companies to impact higher education.

June 9, 2015
I’ve had a few hours to think about the Apple WWDC 2015 keynote. Music got lots of time. Gaming got some time. Education, as usual, was completely absent.
We watched Apple’s music impresario, Jimmy Iovine, enthuse about the “revolution” of Apple’s new music streaming service. Never mind the fact that we already have Pandora and Spotify, and iTunes has been a mess since has far back as anyone can remember.
As we heard about music, I kept wanting to hear about education.
As we watched Jimmy Iovine, I kept wanting to watch Daphne Koller.
Apple paid $3 billion for Beats Electronics in 2014. Coursera, which has received about $85 million in venture funding so far, is probably valued at around $300 million. Apple, with its $178 billion cash on hand, could easily afford to make a long term bet on open online education.   
Why would Apple want to buy Coursera? Or is Apple even the right fit? Would Coursera fit better with Google, or Microsoft? Or is the thought of Coursera being swallowed up by a giant tech / content / advertising / services company a terrible idea?
The reason that all these companies should be thinking about Coursera is that the education business is the business of the 21st century.  Education will completely swamp music and gaming in both revenues and mindshare. 
Why? Because the demand for higher education from the people living in emerging economies will vastly outsrip the capacity of traditional postsecondary structures. 
By 2025 there will be something like 260 million people worldwide enrolled in postsecondary education. 
India alone will have 142 million students in the higher education age group (18 to 23) by 2030.
There is little chance that India will be able to triple the number of campus-based universities it has (to 1,500) to meet this growing postsecondary demand. Nor will the countries of East Asia, Africa, or other emerging economies be able to handle the huge influx of young people needing postsecondary credentialing and skills with a traditional campus-based system of higher education.  
The future of global higher education is competency-based and mobile. Blended learning will define the high-quality, high-status and high-value end of the postsecondary equation. 
Campuses will not go away, in fact the campus experience will become more valuable. What will happen in higher education in the emerging world is the same thing that has occurred in the rich world. The educational floor will raise, and some college education will become normative. 
The tens of millions of students looking for college credentials (if not full bachelor degrees) will do much of their learning on smart phones, and will receive alternative credentials (certificates, badges) as opposed to traditional degrees.
Coursera, edX, and other nontraditional education postsecondary providers, partners, and aggregators will need to fill in where the public sector (and their traditional campus based education systems) cannot.  
So let’s make the case for Apple buying Coursera.
Apple offers software and services, mostly for free, to get people to buy Apple hardware. Why can’t education be one of those services?  
If you think that India, China, and Africa of 2030 is not Apple’s core market, then you are not thinking far enough ahead. In 10 or 15 years the number of consumers in the emerging economies that can afford (and who want) a premium Apple product like an iPhone will greatly outnumber those in the rich world. Tomorrow’s tech consumers are in South Asia, East Asia, Africa and South America.  
If Apple bought Coursera, three things would happen:
  1. Apple would make a long-term commitment to underwriting a full portfolio of best-of-breed courses, with less pressures on short-term revenue models to support open online education.
  2. Apple would focus the same sort of attention on mobile learning as we have had on mobile gaming, payments, and entertainment.
  3. Apple would immediately be central and relevant again in the higher education community.
Apple might privilege the Coursera experience on iOS (and through an app), but Apple would not abandon the Web and other mobile OS platforms. It would be in Apple’s benefit for Coursera to be as widely adopted as possible - a goal that means having Coursera continue to work through the browser and Android apps. Offering a premium experience in iOS would be incentive for Coursera learners to upgrade to an iPhone. 
We could make the somewhat different arguments for Google to buy Coursera. The reason for Google to buy Coursera wouldn’t be to sell more hardware, but to get more data. Putting Coursera into the Google ecosystem would keep users in Google world.  Advertising would be better targeted.  The idea of using open online educational data to better target online advertising might sound repellant. If that is the case, you should stop using Gmail, Google Docs, Google Search, and any other Google product.  Big data to support the next leap in global postsecondary learning sounds like a promising trade-off to my ears. We should fight for universal privacy protection and data security - and open online education should fall under that (strict) privacy umbrella.
Will anyone in leadership roles at Apple, Google (or Microsoft) develop the vision to understand that education is the business of the 21st century?
What sort of thinkers at these companies will see the same potential in education as Steve Jobs saw in music?
Will Daphne Koller being joining Jimmy Iovine on stage at WWDC 2016?


Back to Top