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Coursera’s New Strategy Takes Inspiration From Netflix—and LinkedIn

Coursera’s New Strategy Takes Inspiration From Netflix—and LinkedIn

Coursera is quietly testing elements of a new strategy, with the goal of moving from a platform for courses to a broader career-building service.

It’s part of a continued evolution of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Two Stanford University professors founded Coursera about five years ago, amid a wave of hype that free online courses could one day replace residential undergraduate colleges. That never happened, and since then companies like Coursera have been trying to find their niche—and a sustainable business model.

In its original form, Coursera felt like a course directory that connected students to offerings arranged by subject area. But the company recently added a feature that asks users: “What’s your main goal?” and presents a menu of options including “advance my career,” “start a new career,” or “learn for fun.” Tom Willerer, chief product officer, said the goal is to point to not just skills-based courses, but to offerings that emphasize soft skills as well.

“Now our job switches from, ‘Here are discrete chunks of content,’ to ‘You have a lot of goals in your career: technical skills, leadership skills, business strategy,” he says. “So the learning needs are much, much broader and deep.”

In some ways, Coursera is shifting attention away from the brand-name colleges that provide its courses to Coursera itself as the primary brand. And it signals that the company has now assembled a pretty full slate of offerings. “We are a comprehensive higher-education provider,” says Nikhil Sinha, Coursera’s chief business officer, noting that it offers individual courses, bundles of courses called Specializations that are essentially partial graduate degrees, and even full online master’s degrees.

The groundwork for the change was set when the company started adding subscription options in October. Most of its Specializations—those tiny Master’s degrees offered by Coursera—can now be taken for $39 to $89 per month, rather than a flat rate of $300 to $500. That strategy borrows a page from Netflix, with its all-you-can-binge subscription service, where Willerer worked before joining Coursera. (He led the effort to let users create multiple profiles on their Netflix accounts). Since adding subscriptions, Sinha says, the number of users completing specializations has doubled—as learners rush to finish courses to save money, they also appear to meet their goals more often.

Students can still see most of the course material offered through Coursera for free, but the fees are required for so-called “verified certificates” that students can show to potential employers.

Coursera and Chill?

The goal of the new approach, it seems, is to try to convince students to continue paying for a subscription past the completion of a single specialization. The question is whether the company can entice professionals to think of career development the way fitness buffs think of gym memberships. Or perhaps Coursera’s leaders hope students will curl up with courses the way Netflix subscribers do with shows and movies—though it may be a stretch to imagine “Coursera and chill” entering the lexicon.

Some professors bristle at Coursera’s “packaging” of courses into “products” to be sold. They argue that meaningful education cannot be delivered at massive scale.

But Sinha argues that the demand for higher education is so large that a variety of options will be needed to fill the gaps. Serving the 300 million people expected to enter higher education in the next year with classroom sizes found in typical college seminars, he adds, is simply “not possible.” But rather than trying to bypass traditional higher-ed instruction, the company is actively seeking it—and taking another lesson from Netflix in the process.

“Netflix took a different approach by combining the best of Hollywood with the best of the Silicon Valley,” says Willerer. “We need the expertise of lifelong educators. It’s that marriage of the best of Silicon Valley tech companies with the best of academia that will put us in a different league.”

Sinha also suggests that not all instruction methods at traditional colleges are ideal. “I taught intro to communication at the University of Texas,” Sinha says. “There were 500 students in the class. I didn’t even know their names—though the TAs might have.”

Coursera officials would not elaborate on the new career-service features they plan to add, except to say they will include “diagnostics and assessments and matching,” and that they plan to unveil more of them in September.

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