When free online courses known as MOOCs began to take off in 2012, their pitch to investors often included jargon around “disrupting” the way education is accessed and consumed.
These days, though, many MOOC platforms are courting the traditional higher-ed market they once rebuked, often by hosting fully-online masters degrees for colleges and universities. And today, one of the largest MOOC providers, Coursera, announced it’s going one step further in that direction, with its first fully online bachelor’s degree.
“We are realizing that the vast reach of MOOCs makes them a powerful gateway to degrees,” Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said in a statement.
Coursera already offers online degrees with masters programs from institutions including the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and HEC Paris. And it isn’t the only MOOC provider to do so. Georgia Tech and edX offer an online masters of analytics, for example.
These programs often follow a pay-as-you-go structure, and are far less than the cost of a traditional university offering, too: Coursera’s online masters of business administration with the University of Illinois is priced at $22,000, and an online masters of science in computer science from Georgia Tech on Udacity costs just $6,600.
Coursera last year stated it has plans to expand to 20 online degrees by 2019, and it’s already chipping away at that goal, announcing today the addition of five more master's degrees to its platform. But when the company shared its 2019 target, it gave few hints of offering bachelor's degrees, which have been slow to catch on in the online space compared to masters-level programs.
The new degree will be a bachelor of science in computer science from the University of London. The entire program will cost between £9,600 and £17,000 (approximately $13,300 to $23,500), depending on a student's geographic location. According to a spokesperson for Coursera, the program’s “cost is adjusted based on whether a student is in a developed or developing economy.”
Dhawal Shah, founder of MOOC discovery platform Class Central, said he was surprised to hear that Coursera is offering a bachelor’s degree. “I haven’t seen any [MOOC provider] be successful in the bachelor’s space,” he said.
He points to other bachelor-level efforts from MOOC providers, like the Global Freshman Academy out of ASU and edX. “All these projects never gained traction,” Shah said.
Shah has written about how online graduate degrees could be a “lucrative monetization opportunity” for providers. And today’s announcement signals a furthering of Coursera’s shift toward the traditional degree space. “A major focus for the company moving forward will be working with our university partners to grow the number of degree programs on our platform,” a company spokesperson told EdSurge.
But other challenges remain, like whether or not bachelor’s programs will boom on the site as quickly as masters programs have. For instance, Coursera claims that nearly 90 percent of its 30 million users are 22 or older, posing another demographic challenge to offering an undergrad program. “I don't think they have had success previously” recruiting traditional college-age students, Shah said.
But he sees other reasons why the move might stand a chance for the company: “They are targeting markets that already exist,” says Shah. “The MOOC market has to be created, but now Coursera is going after an existing market.”
And younger learners might not be the only—or even the primary—group that Coursera is courting with the new offering. The company has also increasingly turned to corporate and professional learning for clients and revenue, and officials said the bachelor’s will be targeted at both students who are pursuing their first degree as well as those who already have a bachelor’s under their belt.
The company’s other new masters programs added today include a Master of Computer Science from Arizona State University, a Master of Public Health from Imperial College London, a Master of Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Master of Applied Data Science and Master of Public Health from University of Michigan.
Of course, many of these and other colleges and universities already offer online degrees through their own domains and online program managers. Shah says that might signal another potential trend for the MOOC provider: “In some ways, maybe Coursera is becoming more like a traditional OPM,” he said referring to online program manager companies that help colleges build online degree programs.