Why we “hire” MOOCs like Coursera


May 29, 2013

Last week, I dared to suggest that Coursera is not disruptive—at least, not yet. Its inclusion of K-12 teacher-training materials, while not passing the litmus test for a low-end disruption, interestingly brings to bear the important relationship between certification and lifelong learning. With the exception of these professional development courses, Coursera has not been particularly strategic about delivering sets of courses from its 70 partner institutions that correlate well with one another; however, this is where the company has the potential to have the greatest impact and simultaneously earn its largest profit.

Carving out a disruptive foothold

Many skeptics of MOOCs have tried to brandish the high attrition rates of these courses, pointing to the disturbingly low completion rates ranging anywhere from 3 to 8% for different courses. Critics tend to harp on these numbers as evidence of the inadequacy of this kind of online learning.

These low completion rates make more sense, however, when we understand that a large majority of students trying out MOOCs already hold bachelor’s degrees. This is an important point on which to dwell. Out of the tens of thousands of students taking these courses, a large demographic includes 30+ year-old working adults who already have degrees.

Let’s think about this through our jobs to be done theory. As the great marketing professor Theodore Levitt taught, “The customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill. He wants a quarter-inch hole.” Hence, when one customer hires a product to do one job, he may be delighted with its quality because the product did that particular job well. Another customer with a very different job to be done, however, might hire the same product and judge it to be very low in quality—not because the product is different, but because the job is different. We must therefore ask: What is the job to be done for these bachelor’s degree-holders? What job are these students hiring MOOCs to do?

Broadly speaking, students who already hold bachelor’s degrees might choose to consume this kind of higher education in order to: (1) satisfy their curiosity; (2) see how a professor from a prestigious institution teaches or perhaps even brag about taking a course from a famous scholar or an elite institution; (3) kill time and boredom; (4) broaden their views and conceptual understanding of the world; (5) learn a new skill that might help them in their current work; (6) develop a new skill that might help them launch into a different career.

For jobs one through four, there’s clearly a lack of incentive for many of these students to go through all of the exercises and assignments in order to complete a Coursera course. Jobs five and six, however, hold the key to a specific value proposition.

We as a nation are faced with 11.7 million unemployed Americans while 3.7 millions jobs remain unfilled nationally. At the same time, 53.6% of college graduates are unemployed. There is an extraordinary mismatch of skills, talents, and opportunities—in other words, a profoundly untapped space of nonconsumption. These bachelor’s degree-holders are nonconsumers of higher certification—many of them in need of a way to transition into the workforce. By developing groundbreaking certificate programs for majors that do not even exist but are needed for many of the high-skills jobs out there and emerging today, Coursera has the opportunity to carve out a disruptive foothold by connecting learning to know with learning to do.

So often, learning to know and learning to do are separated. Part of this has to do with the fact that many college professors would likely not characterize their missions as training students for the workforce. There is a concern that postsecondary education should not serve as a funnel for corporate or more general market interests. Some would argue that skills, such as clear communication, deductive reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork, are inherently built into a liberal arts education and will serve students in most career paths.

Recently, however, employers have become increasingly more vocal about their dissatisfaction with the quality of bachelor’s degree-holders. According to a recent McKinsey survey, while 72 percent of educational institutions feel that their graduates were ready for the job market, only 42 percent of employers agree. Forty percent of employers report that they are unable to fill entry-level positions with candidates with adequate skills.

Particularly where the employer is truly the ultimate consumer of the products—the graduates in training—employers, not accreditors, are the only ones who need to be persuaded. If these certificate programs can help associate’s or bachelor’s degree-holders make a more seamless transition into the workforce, therein will be the true validation of their brands. There is space to improve what Anthony Carnevale calls the “cross-fertilization between liberal education and more applied curricula.”

A company like Coursera could serve profitably as the critical pathway for students looking to skill-up for the jobs for which majors do not even exist. The theories of disruptive innovation can help guide MOOCs in general to consider seriously modularizing, combining, and packaging certain skills and competencies into meaningful, accessible, brief, and affordable programs that raise the level of our students to meet the demands of the labor market.

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.