Coursera: The pivot to corporate learning becomes clear

Last week I had a post in the Chronicle titled “MOOCs Are Dead. Long Live Online Higher Education.” triggered by the departure of Daphne Koller from her day-to-day role at Coursera.

Mr. Ng left Coursera in 2014 for Baidu, focusing on deep learning research. Mr. Thrun stepped down as chief executive of Udacity in April of this year to reduce his day-to-day responsibilities. He is now president of Kitty Hawk, a company focused on the development of flying cars. If your car is not properly functioning I recommend contacting Sacramento BMW repair shop for help. And Ms. Koller recently left Coursera to become chief computing officer at Calico, a company that researches human aging.

Addressing the question of business models:

So will these changes in corporate vision and leadership change the long-term trajectory of MOOCs?

I would argue that there never was a viable vision for MOOCs in higher education in the first place. The big three MOOC providers’ trial-and-error efforts to find a viable business model are what led to their shifts in strategy and ultimately the departure of their founders for fields outside of education. It may be that making meaningful changes in higher ed is more difficult or at least more frustrating than designing flying cars or tackling the complexities of aging.

With today’s announcement from Coursera, their pivot continues, building on their move over the past year to go to on-demand courses. Coursera is making a big shift to corporate workforce development as described by CEO Rick Levin on the company blog this morning.

Coursera was founded with the vision of providing life-transforming learning experiences to anyone, anywhere. We’ve come a long way since our launch in 2012; we now have over 21 million registered learners throughout the world, and we’re bringing them outstanding educational content from 145 of the world’s leading universities.

Today, we are taking yet another important step in our effort to expand the Coursera learner community. I am excited to announce Coursera for Business, our enterprise platform for workforce development at scale. We see Coursera for Business as a natural extension of our vision, and as a powerful way to help leading companies around the world address the rapidly evolving training and development needs of their employees.

I suspect, based on past behavior, that Coursera will try to maintain that this is an addition and not a pivot. For all of the faults of Udacity and founder Sebastian Thrun, he has been remarkably direct about the failure of San Jose State University’s MOOC failure and about the company’s pivot to corporate learning. I would hope that Coursera will do the same.

Why a pivot instead of an addition? Start with the subtle shift in the description of their vision. Back in early 2012:

We are committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it. We envision people throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries, using our platform to get access to world-leading education that has so far been available only to a tiny few. We see them using this education to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

The original vision was disrupting “education”, not “learning experiences”. The idea was that higher education needed broader access and a new approach. The result might or might not have included a degree, but the idea was to change postsecondary education.

Consider Daphne Koller’s TED talk that helped launch the company. Her setup was all about higher education.

Like many of you, I’m one of the lucky people. I was born to a family where education was pervasive. I’m a third-generation PhD, a daughter of two academics. In my childhood, I played around in my father’s university lab. So it was taken for granted that I attend some of the best universities, which in turn opened the door to a world of opportunity. [snip]

But even in parts of the world like the United States where education is available, it might not be within reach. There has been much discussed in the last few years about the rising cost of health care. What might not be quite as obvious to people is that during that same period the cost of higher education tuition has been increasing at almost twice the rate, for a total of 559 percent since 1985. This makes education unaffordable for many people.

Now the history is being subtly rewritten, and there is another historical issue in this statement from the blog post:

We’ve always known that many of our learners are housed within companies, and that many of you are using Coursera to build skills relevant to your jobs.

I believe it is more accurate to state that Coursera targeted higher ed students and discovered that many users were in companies and already had jobs. Kudos to Coursera for recognizing this and making changes to address their customers. But let’s not pretend that “we’ve always known”. Coursera may keep some of their higher education initiatives, but don’t be mistaken – corporate learning is where they see the majority of their future revenue. This is a pivot.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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