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December 19, 2013

The intrigue of Coursera

by Michael B. Horn

Coursera, the popular massive open online course (MOOC) platform, intrigues. With over 5 million students served and $85 million raised—both numbers are first among the “MOOC platforms”—it’s the type of company that captures the imagination of people in Silicon Valley who dream of transforming sectors.

Its reach and emerging focus on K–12 professional development were prime reasons that we at the Clayton Christensen Institute, along with the Silicon Schools Fund and the New Teacher Center, recently offered a MOOC on blended learning through Coursera.

But Coursera has always given me reason to pause as well. It’s never felt to me like its initial incarnation could possibly disrupt higher education. Why? As I’ve 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. If a professor seeking tenure at one of these institutions receives a teaching award, it is often said that that professor has just received the kiss of death for her tenure hopes. If students learn at these institutions, it’s often not because the teaching is so good, but because the students are so talented that they can absorb anything thrown at them (and it’s worth noting that just because a professor is entertaining, does not mean it’s a good learning experience).

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, which can become more problematic as students from all walks of life with many different learning needs are now theoretically able to take these courses. In many cases, the platform itself does not help, as it does not help course authors create pedagogically sound experiences. For example, the Coursera platform to this point has, to some extent, reinforced the notion of time-based learning and missed the opportunity to advance competency-based learning.

The courses on Coursera then are not the world’s best teaching and learning experiences, but courses from the best experts in different fields. Having that online and free is a great resource and invaluable edutainment. But if MOOCs stop at being edutainment—akin to the Great Courses series or a fascinating PBS special, then they won’t revolutionize higher education. I suspect that many people today take portions of different courses from elite universities on Coursera for a reason similar to why someone might read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough: sure, perhaps it’s not the best way to learn about John Adams, but you do learn something, it’s entertaining, and there is some social cache to talk to your friends about how you’re reading a book by David McCullough to raise your intellectual standing in the group. Again, nothing is bad here, but it might not be transformative either.

And yet I’ve wanted to be cautious with that sentiment because by their very nature, disruptive innovations tend to start out as primitive and then, once they grab a foothold, improve predictably to create change.

To that end, by grabbing a significant audience by leveraging the popular perception that the top universities represent the highest quality educational institutions—and hosting a range of eclectic and fascinating courses—Coursera may have put itself in a position to now evolve to being a stellar learning platform. In other words, the genius behind Coursera may be in its initial marketing and creation of a brand synonymous with the top institutions of higher learning in the world, which could in turn enable it to become a top engine of learning.

We’ll see, but two directions possess promise and build off of this marketing advantage. Co-founder and co-CEO Daphne Koller hinted at both potential directions in an interview with EdSurge’s Betsy Corcoran back in July.

First, Daphne pointed out the opportunity to support the international market, an observation she and I have both shared in various forums. As many aspects of higher education are modularized—or unbundled—in the years to come, having a source for content that is on the cutting-edge of research and in a teaching format is likely to be important. In developing countries in particular, having access to content like this could enable the spread of higher education where before students might have no such opportunities—classic areas of nonconsumption. Nothing perhaps showcases the role MOOCs could play in this arena more than the examples of Kepler, a non-profit university operating in Rwanda, and Spire, in essence a for-profit version of Kepler designed to scale through the rest of Africa. These universities utilize MOOCs as content to create affordable blended-learning experiences for more students than would otherwise be possible. Coursera’s partnership with the State Department to offer small, blended-learning experiences around the world may be similarly promising.

Second, Daphne observed that ultimately Coursera is “an app platform” that wants “to define a rich ecosystem for student (sic) to collaborate, do simulations and exploit a whole range of cool and interesting applications.” She said, “We don’t have the bandwidth to develop all those by ourselves. We will have a shared data model with well-defined APIs. And yes, I’d expect like any app platform, there will be shared revenue.”

It’s hard to argue that this is what Coursera looks like today, but if it moves in this direction and continues to expand its reach beyond courses and university partners, then it could become a facilitated network, which, since the publication of Disrupting Class, we have hypothesized could be the future business model for much of educational content. In this model, the fact that learning design does not undergird the creation of every learning object and app would be OK because by serving as a facilitated network, Coursera could become a hub for a variety of approaches to learning for different students that they could customize depending on their distinct learning needs—so long as Coursera could somehow help students navigate those to find the best experience for their particular circumstance. Coursera could even offer tutoring apps where students could engage with live humans for help if and when they need it for another learning experience. The possibilities become widespread and exciting.

Moving to a platform that supports all of these experiences would mean developing something that looks quite different from Coursera’s current engine, so doing this would be hard. It likely would also have been better if Coursera had been patient for growth and impatient for profit to prove out which of these—or other—opportunities were most promising long term. But these two areas both represent promising directions that would take Coursera beyond a MOOC as it’s been technically understood, use Coursera’s early relationship with elite universities as a marketing advantage as opposed to the hindrance to learning it might otherwise be, and help bring great learning opportunities to scale. Intriguing indeed.

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