Specializations, Specialized

Massive open online course provider Coursera adds corporate partners to its course sequences and says it has found a business model.

February 12, 2015

Massive open online course providers such as Coursera have long pointed to the benefits of the data collected by the platforms, saying it will help colleges and universities understand how students learn online. Now Coursera’s data is telling the company that learners are particularly interested in business administration and technology courses to boost their career prospects -- and that they want to take MOOCs at their own pace.

As a result, Coursera will this year offer more course sequences, more on-demand content and more partnerships with the private sector.

Asked if Coursera is closer to identifying a business model, CEO Rick Levin said, “I think we have one. I think this is it.”

Since its founding in 2012, Coursera has raised millions of dollars in venture capital while searching for a business model. Many questioned if the company's original premise -- open access to the world's top professors -- could lead to profits, but with the introduction of a verified certificate option, Coursera began to make money in 2013. By that October, the company had earned its first million.

In the latest evolutionary step for its MOOCs, Coursera on Wednesday announced a series of capstone projects developed by its university partners in cooperation with companies such as Instagram, Google and Shazam. The projects will serve as the final challenge for learners enrolled in certain Specializations -- sequences of related courses in topics such as cybersecurity, data mining and entrepreneurship that Coursera introduced last year. (The company initially considered working with Academic Partnerships before both companies created their version of Specializations.)

The announcement is another investment by Coursera in the belief that adult learners, years removed from formal education, are increasingly seeking microcredentials -- bits of knowledge to update or refresh old skills. Based on the results from the past year, Levin said, interest in such credentials is "palpable." He described bundling courses together into Specializations and charging for a certificate as “the most successful of our product introductions." Compared to when the sequences were offered as individual courses, he said, enrollment has “more than doubled” and the share of learners who pay for the certificate has increased “by a factor of two to four.”

“I think people see the value of the credential as even more significant if you take a coherent sequence,” Levin said. “The other measure of effectiveness is manifest in what you’re seeing here: company interest in these longer sequences.”

Specializations generally cost a few hundred dollars to complete, with each individual course in the sequence costing $29 to $49, but Coursera is still searching for the optimal course length. This week, for example, learners in the Fundamentals of Computing Specialization were surprised to find its three courses had been split into six courses, raising the cost of the entire sequence from $196 to $343. Levin called it a glitch, saying learners will pay the price they initially agreed to.

The partnerships are producing some interesting pairings. In the Specialization created by faculty members at the University of California at San Diego, learners will “design new social experiences” in their capstone project, and the best proposals will receive feedback from Michel "Mike" Krieger, cofounder of Instagram. In the Entrepreneurship Specialization out of the University of Maryland at College Park, select learners will receive an opportunity to interview with the accelerator program 500 Startups.

As those examples suggest, the benefits of the companies’ involvement mostly apply to top performers, and some are more hypothetical than others. For example, in a capstone project created by Maryland and Vanderbilt University faculty, learners will develop mobile cloud computing applications for a chance to win tablets provided by Google. “The best apps may be considered to be featured in the Google Play Store,” according to a Coursera press release.

Anne M. Trumbore, director of online learning initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the capstone projects are an “experiment.” The business school, which will offer a Specialization sequence in business foundations, has partnered with the online marketplace Snapdeal and the music identification app Shazam, two companies either founded or run by Wharton alumni.

“There’s not a sense of certainty about what the students are going to produce or how the companies are going to use it,” Trumbore said. “Snapdeal and Shazam will look at the top projects graded highest by peers and trained staff. What the companies do after that is really up to them. We have no idea. We’re casting this pebble into the pond.”

Regardless of the companies' plans, Trumbore said, the business school will waive the application fee for the top 50 learners in the Specialization and provide scholarship money to those that matriculate by going through that pipeline.

“The data’s great, but the larger incentive for Wharton is to discover who’s out there,” Trumbore said.

Levin suggested the partnering companies may also be able to use the Specializations as a recruitment tool. “From a company point of view, they like the idea of being involved with educators in their fields,” he said. “More specifically, I think some of the companies are actually hoping that by acknowledging high-performing students in a couple of these capstone projects they can spot potential talent in different areas of the world.”

While Coursera rolled out its first Specializations last year, Levin said, it also rewrote the code powering the platform to be able to offer more self-paced, on-demand courses. Its MOOCs had until last fall followed a cohort model, which Levin said could be “frustrating” to learners when they came across an interesting MOOC but were unable to enroll. After Coursera piloted an on-demand delivery method last fall, the total number of such courses has now reached 47. Later this year, there will be “several hundred,” he said.

“Having the courses self-paced means learners have a much higher likelihood of finishing,” Levin said. “The idea is to advantage learners by giving them more flexibility.”

Some MOOC instructors would rather have rigidity than flexibility, however. Levin said some faculty members have expressed skepticism about offering on-demand courses, preferring the tighter schedule of a cohort-based model.

Whether it comes to paid Specializations versus free individual courses or on-demand versus cohort-based course delivery, Levin said, Coursera can support both. “Will we develop more Specializations? Yes. Will we depreciate single courses? No,” he said. “We don’t want to discourage the wider adoption of MOOCs.”

Levin also specified that Coursera, despite having a lineup of Specializations skewed toward business, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, wants to feature courses from all disciplines.

“The fact that we found a monetization strategy in technology and business areas doesn’t mean we’re going to become simply a provider of courses in those areas alone,” Levin said. “We value the entire spectrum of our university partners’ content. Half of our learners are not looking for business and technology.”

While he acknowledged that a “far smaller fraction” of learners outside those topics pay for a verified certificate, Levin added, “I think it’s important to acknowledge that we see ourselves as a platform for the fullest expression of what universities can offer in the world.”


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