Coursera shifts focus from ‘impact on learners’ to ‘reach of universities’

Richard Levin, the new CEO of Coursera, is getting quite clear about the new goals for the company. At first glance the changes might seem semantic in nature, but I believe the semantics are revealing. Consider this interview with the Washington Post that was published today in the Washington Post [emphasis added in both cases below]:

Richard C. Levin, the new chief executive of Coursera, the most widely used MOOC platform, wants to steer the conversation back to what grabbed public attention in the first place: the wow factor.

Sure, Levin said, the emerging technology will help professors stimulate students on campus who are tired of old-school lectures. The talk of “flipped classrooms” and “blended learning” — weaving MOOCs into classroom experiences — is not mere hype.

“But that is not the big picture,” Levin said in a visit last week to The Washington Post. “The big picture is this magnifies the reach of universities by two or three orders of magnitude.”

Contrast this interview with Daphne Koller’s December article at EdSurge:

Among our priorities in the coming year, we hope to shift the conversation around these two dimensions of the learning experience, redefine what it means to be successful, and lay the groundwork for products, offerings, and features that can help students navigate this new medium of learning to meet their own goals, whether that means completing dozens of courses or simply checking out a new subject. [snip]

Still, we are deeply committed to expanding our impact on populations that have been traditionally underserved by higher education, and are actively working to broaden access for students in less-developed countries through a range of initiatives

There are valid criticisms of how well Coursera has delivered on its goal of helping students meet their own learning goals, but now it is apparent that the focus of their efforts is shifting away from the learner and towards the institution. Below are a few notes based on these recent interviews.

Changing Direction From Founders’ Vision

This is the second interview where Levin contradicts the two Coursera founders. In the case above Levin shows the point of Coursera is not primarily impact on learners but is reach of great universities. In a New York Times interview from April he made similar points in contrast to Andrew Ng.

In a recent interview, Mr. Levin predicted that the company would be “financially viable” within five years. He began by disagreeing with Andrew Ng, Coursera’s co-founder, who described Coursera as “a technology company.”

Q. Why is the former president of Yale going to a technology company?

A. We may differ in our views. The technology is obviously incredibly important, but what really makes this interesting for me is this capacity to expand the mission of our great universities, both in the United States and abroad, to reach audiences that don’t have access to higher education otherwise.

Levin is signifying a change at Coursera, and he is not just a new CEO to manage the same business. Andrew Ng no longer has an operational role in the company, but he remains as Chairman of the Board (I’m not claiming a correlation here, but just noting the change in roles).

Reach Is Not Impact

The answer in my opinion is only ‘yes’ if the object of the phrase is the universities. Impact on learners is not the end goal. In Levin’s world there is a class of universities that are already “great”, and the end goal is to help these universities reach more people. This is about A) having more people understand the value of each university (branding, eyeballs) and B) getting those universities to help more people. I’m sure that B) is altruistic in nature, but Levin does not seem to focus on what that help actually comprises. Instead we get abstract concepts as we see in the Washington Post:

“That’s why I decided to do it,” Levin said. “Make the great universities have an even bigger impact on the world.”

Levin seems enamored of the scale of Coursera (8.2 million registered students, etc), but I can find no concrete statements in his recent interviews that focus on actual learning results or improvements to the learning process (correct me in the comments if I have missed some key interview). This view is very different from the vision Koller was offering in December. In her vision, Koller attempts to improve impact on learners (the end) by using instruction from great university (the means).

Other People’s Money

Given this view of expanding the reach of great universities, the candor about a lack of revenue model is interesting.

“Nobody’s breathing down our necks to start to turn a profit,” he said. Eventually that will change.

Levin said, however, that “a couple” universities are covering their costs through shared revenue. He declined to identify them.

This lack of priority on generating a viable revenue model is consistent with the pre-Levin era, but what if you take it to its logical end with the new focus of the company? What we now have is a consistent story with AllLearn and Open Yale Courses – spending other people’s money to expand the reach of great universities. Have we now reached the point where universities that often have billion-dollar endowments are using venture capital money to fund part of their branding activities? There’s a certain irony in that situation.

It is possible that Levin’s focus will indirectly improve the learning potential of Coursera’s products and services, but it is worth noting a significant change in focus from the largest MOOC provider.

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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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7 Responses to Coursera shifts focus from ‘impact on learners’ to ‘reach of universities’

  1. Kate says:

    Hi Phil,

    I think you’re right that if the shift is from target market back to brand itself, the question that remains is: reach into what? To me, this looks like a reactive pivot: Coursera is adapting to the emerging focus on professional development/workplace learning of other platforms (and other currently notorious university-corporation deals—looking at you, Starbucks). So what comes next may be some clarity on the learners Coursera will be reaching for, and they may well not be students in the educational system, or wishing to be in it, but workers in global corporations.

    I find FutureLearn an interesting sleeper in this, especially with their micro-courses frankly pitched at professional self-development.

    And yes, the discourse on “great universities” plays its part:

  2. Brian Assam says:

    The problem is we are in a grey area when it comes to our conventional approach to education and the exponential potentials of the social Web. In other words, institutions cannot compromise the individual learning experience for the ability to reach the masses through Web technology.

    So how do we integrate between the two? by developing and supporting a new system for credentialing that is open and comprehensive enough to include individual student, curriculum, and the universities. This would support both impact on learners and the reach of universities.

  3. Phil Hill says:

    Brian, ideally a company would achieve both, but you have to have priorities, or at least an understanding of the means and the end. Previously Coursera used elite universities (means) to impact more students (end); now the message is to find more students (means) to increase reach of elite universities (end).

    Consider this thought experiment: what if a no-name community college developed a MOOC (or could) that is better for learners than a planned elite university MOOC. In the former case, Coursera might use that CC MOOC (which they have at least once, and they even targeted state universities); in latter case, the natural decision would be to use the elite university MOOC.

    There are other examples, but my argument is based on assumption that a change in company vision or goals will have a big impact on actual products / services / strategy. You can’t have it all.

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