Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have revolutionized the delivery of higher education courses around the world. A leading provider of MOOCs is Coursera, which was launched in 2011, and today has 147 partners across 29 countries offering 1,888 courses in a variety of languages. Coursera’s operating model would not have been possible without digital technology as it is leveraging the spread of high speed internet and an interactive online education platform to make the most popular courses from experts in all fields available to everyone around the world at little to no cost. This model is a win-win situation since experts get to reach a much wider audience of students, in some cases they can reach the number of students it would have taken 250 years to reach in a single year, and it helps smaller institutions from having to hire experts in every field and faculty can remain focused on maximizing the classroom experience. As a result, many blended learning models have emerged which include synchronizing an entire MOOC with an in-class course or using select components of a MOOC in a course and supplementing it with additional reading materials. Research has shown that the outcomes of these blended learning courses are almost equal, if not better than, similar in-person courses.
In terms of the business model, Coursera initially had no revenue streams as it didn’t charge for courses but over time, Coursera has begun to capture value by charging students to receive verified certificates which are advertised as a trusted way to showcase your skills to employers. Courses have also been grouped into Specializations with a capstone project to allow the student to demonstrate their learning from the courses. Individual anecdotes exist where students were able to use Coursera courses or specializations to get new jobs such as when a young man in Africa with a humanities background was able to get a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers after taking accounting courses on Coursera. But Coursera still hasn’t been able to achieve these outcomes at scale and until they can convey the value of a verified certificate, it will be difficult for them to convert many users. If Coursera wants to have a tangible impact on unemployment, they should partner with employers to hire their students similar to the coding academies such as Hack Reactor which advertises over 300 hiring partners and a 98% graduate hiring rate from their San Francisco campus.
And while Coursera wouldn’t have been possible without recent advances in digital technology, technology is also undermining the strength of the experience. A recent study by Harvard and MIT on cheating in MOOCs identified up to 5 percent of certificates in some courses may be due to a practice known as “copying answers using multiple existences online” (CAMEO). Students will create multiple free accounts to identify the solutions to quizzes on one account and then input all the correct answers in the main account. Potential solutions include not sharing solutions until after the due date of each assignment or randomizing questions on quizzes so that no two quizzes are alike. Another potential solution is for Coursera to use the technology used by the researchers to identify when the same user creates two separate accounts and they could warn the user they will disable the old account.
The other potential revenue stream for Coursera is to charge users for courses if they can be counted towards college credit and while a few courses have been approved for credit, colleges must decide if they will accept the credit and thus far, very few have. A more promising revenue stream is the licensing of course content to smaller universities and colleges as they realize the cost savings of not hiring experts in each field. Coursera struck a deal with Antioch University a few years ago but this channel should be explored more aggressively.
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