How Coursera is spearheading a new competitive landscape in higher education

Coursera transformed the higher education landscape when it launched in 2012 with the revolutionary idea of democratizing education with massive open online courses (MOOCs). Today, Coursera partners with more than 200 leading universities and has educated more than 82 million learners.

With its forward-thinking approach to learning products, partnerships, and business models, Coursera has spearheaded a new outlook on what it means to get an education or degree at the university level.

This interview with the former Coursera Chief Content Officer explores how exactly it’s all playing out, who the winners and losers will be in higher education going forward, and how the industry will continue to evolve in the coming years.

Quick Takeaways

  • But Higher education institutions are considering ways to integrate Coursera and platforms like it into their core business strategies to open new revenue opportunities and build their own strategic partnerships.
  • Universities with an established reputation have an advantage on the online learning market, but every institution has an opportunity to carve out a niche.
  • In the future, it’s likely that more corporations will participate in democratized higher education in an effort to train future employees.

Coursera partners with institutions around the world

The strength of Coursera lies in the partnerships it has created with universities and corporations, building a massive library of courses and other learning content that learners can consume at a range of price points.

On their offerings:

“Coursera is focused on the B2C market and that’s the world of MOOCs . . . They also do what’s called specialization. Specialization [is] a collection of between three and seven courses put together. You’re going to go deeper and wider into any given topic. They also do professional certificates. Things like the Google IT cert are very successful. They also do, in terms of professional certificates, something called MasterTrack. MasterTrack [is] more often than not credit eligible. A MasterTrack will be a segment of [a] degree that you can take and its price is a little bit higher. Of course, they do degrees, both bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees available online. They’ve got something that was a fairly recent acquisition, Rhyme Projects. These are guided projects that can take around two hours to do and there are over 1,200 of those. That’s what Coursera has currently got on its shelf, if you like, as learning products.”

One of the company’s primary value propositions is its price point. Specifically, that learners can access content from top institutions at an affordable price. Interestingly, however, it’s the institutions themselves that are driving the price point of their content — not Coursera — and their approaches vary.

“You can make recommendations but it’s down to the industry or more often than not university members to what the price point is. They’ll do their own modeling and forecasting for what they think is a good return. There are some universities who want all of their product certainly up to MOOC level to be available for free . . . we’ve recommended that an institution price below, but not too far below what the on-campus version of any degree might be. In some cases where not only has the university partner not wanting to do that, but they wanted to go much further below what our price recommendation was. Their view is part of why we’re in the online space is we want to help really democratize education and make it available. “

Future winners and losers in higher education

One high-priority concern for many higher education institutions is how exactly the competitive landscape will change as more universities turn to online offerings and platforms like Coursera to expand their reach into the tens of millions. Certainly the pandemic has altered the public view on online education and accelerated its acceptance as a norm.

As things continue to evolve, how will universities that lean on factors like location and their on-campus experience compete with their competitors who are fully online? How will smaller, lesser-known schools keep up if their students have access to the likes of Stanford and Harvard at a fraction of the traditional tuition price?

This expert had much insight to share:

“. . . in terms of who’s going to be the winners and losers. I think the winners are going to be universities or who were already ahead of the pack anyway. They’ve got the right content, which has been derived from the right research, the right faculty, and the right brand name, to be honest . . . There are people who probably don’t know that Harvard is in Boston, but they heard of Harvard. There are people who’ve heard of Stanford. They might not know that it’s just outside San Francisco, but they’ve heard of the Stanford name as being a moniker for quality.”

Does that mean smaller universities and colleges will be totally left behind? Not necessarily.

“I think the universities that are going to miss out whether it’s a big brand or whether it’s a small, even a community college level, are the ones who think that somehow things are going to go back to the way they used to be or who think we don’t have anything unique to say or to offer. Universities do need to focus on [the] learning content that they want to become famous for. You mention Cornell to a lot of people and people will say, ‘Oh, hospitality and tourism is what they’re kind of famous for amongst many other things.’ Focus and build out what you’re good at and that’s the ideal content to put online. There will be and there already is an amalgamation of different colleges and universities.”

“The argument is there’s perhaps too many or not enough differentiation between them, but it’s no different than any other industry sector where if you don’t stand out for all the right reasons, someone else is going to be essentially eating your lunch or in this case, taking your students.”

In other words: yes, the big players will lean on their brand and their recognizability. But there are plenty of niches to carve out in the higher ed space, and the winners will be the institutions that remain forward thinking and innovative, paying on their strengths to deliver great content in modern, accessible formats.

Coursera offerings become part of core strategy

As the future of higher education — it’s increasingly online format and democratized nature — becomes clear, colleges and universities are integrating it into their core business strategies. But not all in the same way.

“ . . . I think [universities] are going to be experimenting. There are universities who want to put things online for great altruistic reasons. There are universities who are putting things online just to get a much broader global appeal and also to attract the interest of some of the people that universities want to do research with by putting content on which might talk about their research as it might relate to climate change or global warming or whatever you like as the way to get that attention. The approach a lot of universities are taking is to start putting some things online in a planned way. Ideally to get up to what Coursera would consider the stackability model, so from open courses all the way up to master’s degrees, both to earn revenue but also to get a much wider footprint in terms of a global brand recognition.”

Some examples:

“Michigan has done an outstanding job at letting themselves be known on a global basis. If you look at the Illinois MBA where their online version was so successful that they ended up closing the oncampus version. It also allows you to avoid capital expenditure because now you don’t need to build a bigger lecture hall because you’ve got more students coming in. It’s online and that’s a very different investment criteria than having enough lecture theaters to hold some more students.”

More on the future

As universities embrace these new competitive norms, more innovations and evolving business models continue to emerge on the horizon. This expert notes we can expect to see deeper participation from corporations, specifically with the aim of training future employees. This has potential to increase the applicable value of a degree for the students earning them while opening new revenue streams for traditional education institutions.

“ . . . the other thing that’s going online allows a university to [do is] offer that university content in a curated fashion to the world of enterprise and as well as governments. You’ve now got this new potential revenue stream and new channel that most universities are not geared up to serve in terms of they don’t have sales forces that will go out and sell into a chief learning officer or a chief HR officer, which is something that our university would not want to do.”

While universities pursue these opportunities, it looks like learners may seek a “build-your-own” type of model in the future. 

“EdTech platforms can offer you a curated version of machine learning that comes out of Stanford and they can offer you leadership that comes out of the business course at Columbia, and they can offer you understanding conflict in the workplace that might come out from some other institution or whatever that flavor of content is, but they’re not constrained by just their own brand and just their own faculty and research.”

On the industry at large:

“Higher education is opening itself up to providing credit and acceptance of learning that comes from non-traditional sources as well . . . You’re taking content from a private industry, content creators, and giving [credit] within a higher education institute. Of course, for them their writings on the wall. A lot of their graduates want to go with these organizations. In the future, I’m waiting for a large energy company to be part of a climate change or sustainable energy degree somewhere because that’s where those graduates probably will be aiming for anyway. Why not get their expertise and their on-the-ground experience beyond the faculty expertise of the university also involved in what’s going on in the center?”

“They’re putting together a portfolio of skills over and above their degree subject area that will give about a much better chance of being, I think, a value to an employer. Of course, employees as well internally are realizing that we don’t just need finance skills for our finance division. They need a whole host of other skills including the classic digital transformation and what does that mean to this department or to that division. It’s a nice way to bring together, I think, access to the skills at a great price but more importantly in a curated fashion with content from some of the great providers in industry and university that are out there.”

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