One of the biggest stories in higher ed and online learning over the last few years has been the rapid rise, and subsequent trip along the hype cycle, of massive open online courses. Despite their potential, MOOCs have faced questions ranging from their impact on higher ed's existing business model and their own sustainability to their ability to generate meaningful credentials taken seriously by employers.
Coursera's director of business and market development, Julia Stiglitz, was on hand at this week's SXSWedu in Austin, TX, to participate in a panel conversation about the company's global scale—66% of its users were international early on, and that number is now around 73%, largely in India and China. “One of the really exciting things that we’re seeing is just how global in every respect—in terms of looking at our partners, in terms of looking at our students—this movement is," said Stiglitz. "We are spending a lot of effort trying to grow that even more.”
Along with that global audience, the MOOC provider is focusing on offering solid credentials to the lifelong learners who tend to take its courses here in the U.S. Its "Specialization" course tracks feature a variety of industry partners offering capstone projects, and one success story involves a student who landed a job with Google using the data science skills he learned through Coursera. The company is also now offering its courses on-demand to better fit around jobs, families, and other commitments in users' schedules.
We caught up with Stiglitz to find out more about the company's vision for credentialing, its recently announced partnership with JetBlue, and whether rumors of the MOOC revolution's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
EDUCATION DIVE: I want to start out with the big question: Is the MOOC revolution over?
JULIA STIGLITZ: I think it’s just beginning. I really do. When we first launched, I don’t think we knew exactly who our students were going to be, and I don’t think anyone knew exactly what MOOCs were going to be. Were they going to be targeting traditional higher education students? Were they going to be looking at lifelong learners? Was it about just the love of learning? Was it more career-oriented?
It’s something that’s still evolving, but the place where I see Coursera and MOOCs in right now is in the space of lifelong learners, who are really looking for educational opportunities that are either for their career or just because they love learning and they want to take courses and there aren’t really options out there. I think we’re part of this growing, new category, which is this lifelong learning education category. That’s growing and we’re a big player in that.
Speaking of lifelong learners, one of the things people tend to criticize about MOOCs is completion rates. But those learners might not necessarily be looking to complete an entire course, but to gain a specific piece of knowledge.
STIGLITZ: Completely. It has a lot to do with what a learner’s intention is, and we see this reflected in our data. If a learner completes the first assignment—so they show some intention of completing—the completion goes up much higher. It goes up to like 45%. If a learner pays for a verified certificate, it shows a lot more intention of completing. Completion goes up to 60 or 70%. If you take the learner who paid for the verified certificate and you ask them, “Do you intend on completing?” and they say, “yes,” then it goes up to like 70 or 80%.
I think it’s both the challenge and the opportunity with our platform. It’s flexible, and it needs to be flexible. It needs to accommodate learners who do have very different intentions.
You all are partnering with JetBlue to feature lecture videos on flights. That’s a really good marketing opportunity for partner institutions that get their videos on there, right?
Yeah. It’s fantastic. People have a lot of time on flights, and it allows them to get exposed to this terrific content. We’re in this new category that’s growing, so thinking about instead of watching a movie or surfing the Internet, you can watch a class—being able to introduce that to a lot of people is exciting.
Recently, a New York Times piece said that free online credentials, not MOOCs, would transform higher ed. What are you all seeing as far as how businesses are viewing your credentials?
STIGLITZ: When we look at our learners, there’s these two groups of learners: There’s one that’s enrichment focused—just focused on the love of learning—and the second group, which is really career-oriented. For those learners, getting a credential that’s meaningful in the market is really, really important.
We’re doing a number of things to try to make our credentials really valuable for them. One of the things we’re doing is building relationships with the industry to understand what their needs are, so when we’re talking to our university partners about what content should be produced, we're connecting it with industries so the content is more aligned.
The second thing is where we’re partnering with companies to create capstone projects. There’s a specialization from Wharton that’s a business foundations specialization. We have Shazam and then Snapdeal, which is like the top startup in India, who are creating final projects for that specialization. For another example, we have an interaction design specialization, and the final project is from Instagram. The idea is you have capstone projects that are from real companies, where students are doing real things, and that becomes part of the credential. You have this piece of paper, but additionally, you have your interaction design project and you get to show both of those things to an employer. And that project is from another reputable, aspirational employer. We believe that’s going to help students use those credentials to get jobs.
Finally, we have companies that are starting to sponsor the production of the courses. That allows us to both tie the content more tightly to industry, and to incorporate other elements like videos from industry or projects at the end of the course.
What have you seen completion rate-wise compared to standard MOOCs? The specializations are paid, right?
STIGLITZ: The content is still free, but what people are paying for is the certificate. We have a lot of people who decide to pay up front for the whole specialization to help motivate themselves to complete. And the final project, the capstone project that I mentioned, is just for the paid learners.
The completion rate goes up, and course-to-course completion, which is something that’s really important, also goes up. It’s very motivating to have a sequence of courses, so you don’t just do one data science course, you actually go through and take nine.
It’s been interesting, this question of what is the right unit of knowledge to have an impact on someone’s career. Is one course sufficient? Is one course that you can put on your LinkedIn profile enough to turn the head of an employer and for students to feel really confident saying, “I know data science?” What we’re seeing is, we think, that the specialization is the right unit of knowledge, where you’re really showing that you’ve learned something. You took nine courses and you did this project that shows that you can apply it in a real-world context. That is what students feel very confident putting on their LinkedIn profile, and we think that is what’s going to change how employers view these.
As industries change more and more rapidly, people are going to be looking for these types of credentials that you can update throughout your entire career and that are more focused and specialized.
Is there a lot of interest as far as companies using your courses internally for training?
STIGLITZ: It’s interesting. We have had a lot of conversations with employers about the potential use of our courses internally. We’ve run a number of pilots with companies that are using our courses, and they’re doing different things with it. Yahoo’s one example, where any employee who takes a Coursera course will get reimbursed by Yahoo. They believe that this is good for their professional development, and they want to encourage their employees to do so. Corporate training is a natural extension of what we're doing.
A recent study placed the cost of a MOOC for a university between around $40,000 to $325,000. Where do you all tend to see the costs for institutions?
STIGLITZ: It varies. On the lower cost, even more than that. I was on a panel the other week with one of our most popular MOOCs. It launched in August and has had half a million students that have gone through it, and she spent less than $10,000 on this MOOC, “Learning How to Learn.” She recorded it in her basement and her husband filmed it. [Co-founder] Andrew Ng’s “Machine Learning” class, which continues to be one of our more popular courses, was filmed with a webcam. Our current director of engineering did the editing. That was in Coursera’s early days.
There’s a huge range. The numbers that we normally cite to our partners is around $50,000 for the production of a MOOC, so that’s what we think it costs. Depending on how many people they have working on it, depending on if they have professional film and editing crews or hire outside animators, there’s a number of things they can add on. We have a team at Coursera called “Course Success,” focused on understanding what elements really drive efficacy in MOOCs. The jury’s still out in terms of how production costs and various things you can add on actually impact the learning experience.
With the potential for things like MOOCs and President Obama’s free community college initiative to disrupt parts of the higher ed business model, like the large lecture hall gen-ed courses that are big money makers, how do you see Coursera's impact playing out in the long-term?
STIGLITZ: It’s way too early to tell. I think down the line, Coursera could play a role in terms of supporting instruction within an institution, in terms of thinking about how to improve the quality of instruction—especially in emerging markets, where it’s really hard to get the type of human capital that you need to teach machine learning or some of these more advanced subjects. We don’t know how it’ll all play out, so it’s way too early to tell.
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