Coursera: The Edtech platform that could disrupt Higher Education

Coursera continues to develop it's MOOC platform with over 48 Million learners and 200 partners.

Coursera: The Edtech platform that could disrupt Higher Education

Coursera, one of the world’s leading online learning platforms offers MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. Founded by two Stanford professors less than 8 year ago it has managed to create a community of ~48 million learners across the world. It partners with 207 education and corporate institution including Yale, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and Google across 52 countries in offering 4,113 courses to its learners. The platform uses recorded lectures, assigned readings and auto or peer graded assignments/ projects and community discussion forums as an alternate to traditional classroom or live online learning experience.


Using Clayton Christenson’s disruption theory principles, Coursera is a low cost disruptor, offering lower quality (in terms of classroom experience and not course content) for a fraction of the cost. It creates immense value for individuals, for instance individuals from emerging markets such as South Asia are able to upskill themselves to move roles based on the new skills acquired. I believe the 5 main advantages of Coursera to individuals are:

  • Learning and upskilling
  • Its free or much cheaper than traditional education
  • Access to lectures from some of the top instructors and thought leaders of the world
  • Its self-paced so individual could learn after work or on weekends
  • Flexible learning options in the form of courses, Specialization and Degrees
  • Access to technical data science, programing and frontier technologies

A major barrier to widespread adoption is that Coursera courses still don’t have the same recognition or credibility as standard courses as they do not, for the most part, count towards university credit.


The other side of the platform is content partners which includes some of the world’s leading universities and corporations. Coursera originally attracted partners to create high quality education content, which gave the platform the credibility and allowed it to attract the students. Hence, Coursera has a very strong cross-side network effect. The same-side network effects on the consumer’s side are strong as they give the platform more credibility to attract more learners, this results in an active discussion forum community and word of mouth marketing. As the number of learners and Coursera’s Alumni base grows, the recognition of its certifications would improve. The same-side network effects are relatively weaker on the Partner’s side. Although renowned partners enables Coursera to attract others, courses and specialization often compete with one another.

The motivation for more partners to join is driven partly by social corporate responsibility to make education universally accessible, improve employability of individuals, increase society’s technical knowledge, and lastly to open additional revenue streams. I believe the monetary benefits and value for the partner are more long-term while the value proposition for the customers is more clear and immediate.

Business Model evolution and offerings 

Coursera has continued to evolve and innovate; from starting off as individual courses it then went on to monetizing through certificates of completion, and then eventually partnered with institutions to launch specialization for topics like data science, AI, and Machine Learning by combining a series of courses of the same partner.  It then launched accredited Master track certificates in topics such as Supply Chain Excellence which counted for university credit within the same institution. It further expanded to launch online Bachelors, Masters and MBA degrees with several leading universities.

Just last month, it launched an online subscription, Coursera Plus, for $399 a year which allows learners unlimited access to 90% if its education catalogue to complete courses to earn certificates and specializations. Coursera also offers tailored learning solutions for Enterprises, Governments and Campuses. Coursera for Business and Government offers training and development programs to employees by packaging courses from multiple partners. Coursera for Campus makes high quality global online courses available to university students of campus partner. Despite all these monetization opportunities, Coursera remains a learner centric platform allowing anyone to audit a course for free and offering financial aid for its premium offerings.

Scalable and Sustainable?

The Platform is extremely scalable with an addressable market of the entire adult population of the world. Although customers often multi-home with other EdTech rivals such as Edx, Udacity, Code Academy, Udemy and other online University education programs, Coursera is sustainable because of the breath of its content and partnerships. The Partners do not multi-home. I believe a  future catalyst for growth would be 5G that could allow Coursera to roll-out more live learning programs in a world where distant learning would increase.

The real value in the platform is derived from the strength of its partnerships and the recognition of Coursera certificates among employees will continue to increase the platform stickiness. I anticipate Coursera to continue to thrive at the back of growing partnerships, recognition for certifications among employees, ease of platform use, more value added features and growth in the B2B space with Coursera for Campus, Government and Business.


Coursera. 2020. Coursera | Build Skills With Online Courses From Top Institutions. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2020].

Knowledge@Wharton. 2020. Moocs On The Move: How Coursera Is Disrupting The Traditional Classroom – Knowledge@Wharton. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2020].


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Student comments on Coursera: The Edtech platform that could disrupt Higher Education

  1. I see the future of Coursera not as bright as you are describing it. The major disadvantage is that these prestigious institutions such as Stanford need to keep their brand exclusivity to keep the high ranks. So it will never be the same degree as you having attended the classes in campus and gotten a degree from the same school.
    The other big drawback to scaling globally I see is language. Most of the world speaks English but a lot of the people prefer the classes in their own language and are not comfortable with English.
    Lastly the competition can also create those partnerships that seem to be the main advantage of this company. For example Harvard has its own digital platform now and could potentially partner with any of the competitors of Coursera in the future.

    1. I’m also skeptical of the breadth of Coursera’s potential – yes, some of the value to a higher educational experience comes from the classroom learning that Coursera is able to replicate, but much of the value comes from things far less replicable: the interpersonal skills developed among classmates, the relationships with fellow alumni, etc. These intangible sources of value are impossible to replicate even if Coursera were to serve as an OPM for admit-only programs (e.g., students still have to go through a rigorous application process).

      Given this, I’d put my money on Coursera disrupting vocational training and continuing education, where the value is perceived to lie in the classroom experience – but not higher educational as a whole. The $399 subscription model doesn’t make much sense here – in fact, it’s questionable whether it even makes sense to be charging to student, in all situations, or whether Coursera should be focusing more on B2B opportunities in the continuing ed and corporate training markets.

    2. I actually think that HBS also uses a third-party OPM (online program manager) – this is a huge industry and standard practice, so it’s kind of notable that Coursera is instead so insistent on co-branding. It’s obviously working for them now but I wonder to what extent, and if a time will come when they start white-labeling their tech (if they aren’t already).

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

    Coursera is a super interesting business and one of the few online higher education companies that has reached a considerable scale over the last years. However, I am seeing a couple of challenges on the horizon:

    1) Unit economics for university partnerships are difficult as up to 20-30% of revenues goes to universities – on top of customer acquisition costs
    2) The company, over the years has tried to create multiple revenue streams – from initial certificates, to degrees, to B2B offerings and subscriptions – it doesn’t look like the solutions themselves have scaled sufficiently.
    3) The market is getting very crowded and certain high-end brands such as Harvard/ MIT/ Stanford are considering creating their own universe of education programs in order to avoid brand dilution.

    Overall, I do believe there’s a need for a change in higher education and with its new CEO and a strong growth in the B2B business, Coursera can play a significant role in upskilling of the workforce – that’s where I see most of the opportunity at this point – working with corporates who have a distinct need in talent/ skills and bridge their demand-supply gaps.

  3. Thanks for your post! Over the past few years I have truly started to appreciate the true potential of online learning platforms, particularly in countries and regions where higher education (or education at all) is not readily available.

    My biggest worry for Coursera is the rise of competitors. The 5 main advantages of Coursera that you mention are -as far as I know- not unique to Coursera. They may be at the forefront of the offering of online degrees (although I’m not sure) and certificates, which indeed could be their strongest advantage, but as online learning become more accepted I think such certification will be implemented across other platforms.

    You mention that Coursera is sustainable because of the breadth of its content and partnerships – however, the broader and wider the partnerships, the less selective they inevitably will become, which might be a deterrent for more prestigious universities who do not want to be associated with a platform “below their ranking”. If Coursera lose their more prestigious partners, their offering becomes less strong, and partners will move to more selective platforms. For “students” who only want to audit classes and don’t care about certifications, they will likely be drawn to those platforms, e.g. Harvard’s and MIT’s edX and equivalent names. The breadth of courses nevertheless could be a strong advantage for Coursera, although they may risk auditors moving to niche platforms within their subject of interest with stronger brands.

    I think there is still a strong future for Coursera but they must strengthen what is unique or stronger about their value proposition that is difficult for others to copy.

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