Coursera – Quality Education for All

Enabled by digitization and technology, we are now able to offer quality education to a larger audience in an affordable way. Coursera is a pioneer player in the space, using innovative technology to disruptive the education space.



Founded in 2012 by two Stanford University professors, Coursera is on a mission to democratizing education by partnering with top universities worldwide to offer courses online. Coursera does this through the massive open online course (“MOOC”) model, where a course is offered online with no restriction to the number of participants. So far, Coursera offers over 1,000 courses through its partnership with 140 universities and educational institutions serving over 20 million registered students. [1] [2]

The MOOC Value Proposition – Accessibility and Affordability

  • Bigger reach to larger audience: education via an online platform means students are no longer constrained by their geographic location to engage in quality education. An Average MOOC course enrolls on average about 43,000 students per class. [3]
  • Low-cost for both education provider and students: Physical infrastructure such as a classroom or furnitures are no longer needed. Students can now take classes from top universities for free or a small fee.

A Closer Look at Coursera

Coursera forms partnerships with top universities such as Stanford, Princeton, UC Berkeley, etc. offering a range of topics, including humanities, medicine, business and computer science, among others. In a typical class, a student will watch video lectures, take interactive quizzes, complete peer graded assessments, and connect with fellow students and instructors (think HBX CORE). Both videos and quizzes are designed as bite-size chunks to cater to today’s consumers with short-attention spans.

Product Offering

  • Course certificate: students pay a fee to earn a verified certificate for $39-$119/course
  • Specialization: bundle offering, typically four to eight courses that covers a particular topic. $300-$600/specialization

Monetization Model: Coursera started as a platform free for all but with the need to run a sustainable business, soon had to switch to a freemium model:

  • Free: same access as pay model but no graded assignments by teachers
  • Pay-as-you-go model: for both single course and specialization
  • Subscription model: Introduced in Oct 2016 based on the study that students are 2.5x likely to complete a specialization on a subscription model versus those on pay-as-you-go model. Through subscription, Coursera hopes to both increase its recurring revenue and students’ ongoing educational activity. [4]

New Offering: Coursera is also tapping into the $71 billion corporate training market by introducing Coursera for Business, offering corporate learning, training and development services to employers in August 2016. [5] On top of classes, Coursera also built tools to allow employers to track progress of employees. Successful pilot clients include BNY Mellon, BCG, L’Oreal and Axis Bank. [6]

Recommendations to Mitigate Current Challenges

The MOOC model is heavily criticized for its low completion rate. The average completion rate is only around 15%. [7] A few explanations: 1) students have no incentive to drop out with voluntarily courses, and 2) not everyone feels compelled to complete the course, especially if students simply signed up for the course based on interest versus a necessity. Though this is the case, Coursera can still put in efforts to increase completion rate. Few ideas include:

  • Improve students engagement:
    • Encourage and facilitate offline students meetups to build and increase accountability
    • Offer personalized learning plans that help students assess their progress and identify areas for improvement
  • Incompletion penalty
    • Take students’ payment information and charge them for incomplete courses. Cater this to those who intend to complete the course but having trouble doing so.

Coursera has long struggled with its monetization strategy. The introduction of both subscription model and Coursera for Business this year indicates that Coursera is seeking creative ways to capture value. A few additional monetization opportunities include:

  • Provide recognizable credentials endorsed by employers: Coursera and a few university professors worked together to survey students on the benefits of Coursera. 72% respondents reported career benefits. [8] By prioritizing courses and skillsets more aligned with employers are looking for today, Coursera will be able to help students further enhance their professional skills and improve their candidacy.
  • Form partnerships with mentoring, advising and counseling organizations to provide additional support to students: the same survey saw 61% respondents reported increase in educational benefits. Partnerships with organizations that already advise students on education will help these students decide on the right courses to take and prepare them with the right skillsets for the workforce.

Coursera is still refining its business and operating models to address issues such as low completion rate and monetization strategy. Despite criticisms, Coursera’s vision of democratizing education is grand, and has already shown tangible benefits to job-seekers and education-seekers alike. Though Cousera is not solving all the problems in education but it is advancing us towards the right direction by providing “universal access to the world’s best education.” [9]


A flavor of some of Coursera’s specializations.


An example of a certificate upon completion of the data science specialization.


[1] “By The Numbers: MOOCS in 2015’” Dec 21, 2015. Dhawal Shah.

[2] Coursera profile on Crunchbase.

[3] “Study: Massive Online Courses Enroll An Average Of 43,000 Students, 10% Completion’” March 3, 2014. Gregory Ferenstein.

[4] “Introducing Subscriptions for Specializations.” Oct 31, 2016.

[5] “2015 Training Industry Report.”

[6] “Coursera expands into corporate learning and development.” Aug 31, 2016. Lora Kolodny.

[7] “MOOC Completion Rates: The Data.” June 12 2015.

[8] “Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why.” Sep 22. 2015. Chen Zhenghao.

[9] Company website.


Auto makers manage to cram ever more technology into their cars, but dealers fall behind.


Tigo Energy: can Smarter Solar go Mainstream?

Student comments on Coursera – Quality Education for All

  1. Coursera is one of the many online education platforms that universities and organizations in the educational space have launched, and I think it is a great idea to keep up with digitization. However, my concern is how far it can go beyond supplemental courses such as the ones Coursera provides (“make convincing arguments”, “build your own android app”,etc.). Do you think these platforms will start to offer more “complete” programs such as full degrees or MBAs? If that’s the case, do you think they could be equally valued as the ones offered in-person at universities? This might be the future of education – I hope not!

  2. Great post, Mary! I like the idea of Coursera and agree that incentivizing students to finish the courses is the major challenge. In summer I signed up for 5 courses but did not finish one of them. I think one problem is the accreditation of the courses. Even if someone pays for a certificate, it does not mean anything for the majority of universities and employers. They should work even more with leading schools and companies and create agreements that increase the value of a certificate, e.g. by offering actual credit points at a university or by being a mandatory requirement for certain jobs.

  3. +1 to Fabian’s concern that maybe customers don’t take the courses/certifications seriously because the external environment doesn’t take them seriously. Perhaps a better partnership with these institutions would improve the impact the certifications can have.

    Separately, as an additional monetization model, what about using some of the ideas we learned from stickk? Leverage behavioral economics and earn revenue when customers fail to finish a course.

  4. Hi Mary. Thanks for the though provoking post. I must admit that I am a skeptic of the MOOC model. Everywhere I see, I observe companies making hiring decisions on the basis of the pedigree of a student’s degree. I don’t know if a coursera degree would ever carry the same weight. Like many other digital businesses that seek to democratize learning and resources, the ease of access to the service automatically decreases the value of the service. Because millions of people can get the same coursera degree I would imagine that the degree is of lesser and lesser value.

    Instead of partnering with educational institutions there is perhaps more value in partnering with an employer or a company which provides this education and certification. That degree will have more value in the job market.

Leave a comment