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Coursera, K12, Inc. make bold moves to drive learning

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Jan 29, 2015

In 2013 and 2014, sobriety returned to the world of education and the luster of MOOCs faded some. As I wrote about Coursera last year, although the company held intriguing promise, realizing its potential would require some big pivots.

K12, Inc. similarly stormed through the early 2000s by bringing online learning to the world of K-12 education and went public in 2007. The then-billion-dollar company was flying high—until people became nervous about some of its academic results and operations—and the storm shifted to douse its growth.

2015 represents a new beginning for both though—beginnings that hold potential.

As I wrote, Coursera’s initial incarnation never felt to me like it could disrupt higher education. As I told its team, offering courses from the top universities online and claiming that at last, anyone anywhere can access the best learning in the world isn’t correct. The reason is that the top universities do not offer the best teaching and learning experiences. Instead, their faculty members are incentivized heavily to focus on research at the expense of teaching.

Putting these courses online often makes them worse. Not only do professors not know how to teach well in person, but also their lack of understanding of the basic principles of sound learning design causes them to exacerbate these problems as they put these experiences online. This can become more problematic as students from all walks of life with many different learning needs are now theoretically able to take these courses. As my colleague Michelle R. Weise has observed, lacking autonomy from the business model—the resources, processes, and priorities—of an existing organization dooms innovative efforts to follow the same path as the parent.

In many cases, Coursera’s platform itself did not help, as it did not help course authors create pedagogically sound experiences. Most prominently, the Coursera platform reinforced the notion of time-based learning and missed the opportunity to advance competency-based learning. When employees at Coursera painted a picture for me of how they could help serve professional development and other lifelong learning experiences, I told them the focus sounded right, but I wasn’t sure they could adapt their existing platform to meet the demand. And I knew that building a new platform from scratch was no easy proposition.

This backdrop made Coursera’s recent announcement momentous, as the company has done just that—build an entirely new platform to offer on-demand, self-paced courses and learning experiences. Going forward, much of the company’s investment will be in this platform, as it will shelve the old one and work to take the things the old platform did around creating cohorts for a sense of community and offer those social experiences in a self-paced model. This represents a big strategic investment in elevating the importance of learning and bolstering Coursera’s ability to improve people’s lives. We don’t know if it will work, but the investment is smart.

Meanwhile, at K12, Inc.’s headquarters in Herndon, Virginia, the company is undergoing a similar renaissance. In the past, K12, Inc. invested heavily in creating a great core knowledge curriculum under the belief that that it could lift all students. Under new CEO Nate Davis though, the company has dug into that belief and discovered, unsurprisingly, that teachers still matter a great deal (and perhaps more in a full-time virtual school where motivation is critical and distractions are undoubtedly plentiful).

To that end, K12, Inc. started spending significant resources over the past year to turn around the ship. Although investors may not like the expenditures in the short term, in the long run, as Nate Davis told me in a conversation at the end of last year, the investments are critical to improve student learning—and so that K12, Inc. remains a going and growing concern (to that end, see its second fiscal quarter results released today).

First, the company is investing significantly in its teachers. It is upgrading its professional development offerings and supports. In a world where there are few programs that prepare teachers for teaching in a fully virtual environment, K12, Inc.’s investment in professional development is a necessity. Additionally, the company is investing in identifying, attracting, and hiring stronger teachers from the outset.

Second, it is investing in instructional approaches that increase student and parental engagement—such as differentiated school offerings for different student needs, as well as products and services for blended-learning environments, where the bulk of K–12 online learning will ultimately be—both for its own full-time managed schools as well as for districts through its Fuel Education business.

Third, it is working to improve its core systems and operations, both within schools and across states. This area in particular may require the reinvention of some of K12, Inc.’s basic products in ways similar to Coursera’s reinvention of its platform.

And fourth, it appears to be taking my colleague Heather Staker’s advice to heart by working closely with its charter school boards and district partnerships to better align its outreach and enrollment to the students who are best suited for success in full-time virtual schools. This is not an easy task and requires a balancing act, but as we have pointed out before, many public schools have architectures that are built for students in certain circumstances but not others. It’s clear that SEED schools work for certain students with a high level of needs, for example, whereas KIPP schools, designed to serve low-income students as well, require at least one involved parent. Similarly, it’s not crazy to think that a full-time virtual schooling format just isn’t the right fit for many students. Companies like K12, Inc. must inform students and parents up front what it’s like to learn in a full-time virtual school that requires a significant amount of individual effort, parental support, and persistence before they commit and K12, Inc. receives the associated public funds.

The early results from these efforts appear to be positive. After three years of relatively flat and sometimes declining test scores, K12, Inc.’s full-time students appear to have increased their proficiency levels in both reading and math, even as K12, Inc. serves a population with 62 percent of its student eligible for free-and-reduced price lunch, compared to 49 percent nationally.

The company still has a significant amount of work ahead, but along with Coursera, its moves are pointing in the right direction.

Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

  • Great post, Michael, especially because you’ve described adjustments made by two highly-visible online ed companies that each focus on k12 or higher ed. The ultimate outcomes should be improved learning, though what intermediate outcomes are you most paying attention to? Also are there downstream outcomes such as improved knowledge retention that you think are necessary for success? Thanks.

    • Michael B. Horn

      Great question. I think it’ll vary between the two areas… K12 would be interim learning assessments I think as well as engagement. Retention is sort of a separate issue because many students go to a virtual school for a transition experience–explicitly not to stay there that long in other words. Higher ed/lifelong learning will be more complicated as well because we don’t always know what jobs to be done people are hiring a Coursera for — is it to browse? engage in serious learning? edutainment? But if the goal is to further people in careers, then I’d start to look for signals from employers.