On-Demand MOOCs, Revenue Streams, and More from #Coursera14

London Eye, NightEarlier this month I attended the 2014 Coursera Partners Conference in London. I wasn’t able to attend last year’s Partners Conference, but, given my role in the CIRTL Network MOOC on evidence-based undergraduate STEM teaching launching this fall, I felt it was important I participate in this year’s conference. I’ll blog later about my presentation on the CIRTL Network MOOC (and our plans for MOOC-supported learning communities), along with a few thoughts on my panel session. Today, some observations on the conference keynotes.

14-03-31 Coursera14 - Keynote 1

In the opening keynote session, there was a clear theme of increasing access to education. Representatives from our hosts, the Universities of London and Edinburgh, both described their respective institutions’ histories of broadening access. Andrew Ng, one of Coursera’s co-founders, shared an inspirational story of a woman in Bangladesh leveraging the education she obtained through MOOCs into a successful small business. Daphne Koller, Coursera’s other co-founder, noted a decrease in anxiety over MOOCs putting traditional universities out of business, in part because of MOOCs appeal to learners who wouldn’t enroll in traditional universities anyway. And Rick Levin, Coursera’s brand new CEO, made the point twice that those universities partnering with Coursera should expect one, maybe two orders of magnitude increase in their reach. An institution might have on the order of 10,000 students now, but, through open online courses, that reach might grow to 100,000 or 1,000,000 students in the next few years.

This is certainly something we’ve had to wrap our minds around at Vanderbilt. By launching a half dozen MOOCs, we’ve added tens of thousands of learners to our community. They’re not students in the traditional sense of enrolled, tuition-paying, credit-seeking students, but they are participating in Vanderbilt’s educational mission. (I talked about this idea in an EDUCAUSE presentation twelve months ago, setting our MOOCs in the context of the university’s educational outreach to local K-12 students and senior adults.)

14-03-31 Coursera14 - Keynote 2

Perhaps the biggest news of the conference was the announcement by Coursera that they’re developing a new version of their platform that will support on-demand courses. Currently, any given MOOC has a defined start and stop date, so that students can only participate in the MOOC during specific windows of time. Coursera believes that by allowing students to start a course whenever they like and move through the course at whatever pace they like, more students will enroll in and complete MOOCs on the platform. Increasing enrollment and especially completion numbers is a strategic priority for Coursera (see my next point below), and offering on-demand courses certainly has the potential to help with that.

The on-demand model will likely work very well for some courses, particularly courses in which students already work fairly independently. Many of the computer science MOOCs, for instance, make relatively little use of Coursera’s discussion forums and peer assessment tools. However, I worry that courses that thrive on the community fostered by a MOOC might lose some of their energy and effectiveness in an on-demand model. (I’m thinking of courses like Vanderbilt’s “Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations” or “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” here.) Coursera is actually envisioning a platform that would support both on-demand and cohort-based courses, so I’m not too worried — this isn’t an either-or situation. But I am a little concerned that the Coursera leadership didn’t seem to understand the important role that community (and instructor presence) plays in some MOOCs for some students.

One other note on this point: I like the idea of “flash cohorts” (as in “flash mobs”) that was suggested by someone from the Coursera team as a potential component of the on-demand model. Got a question about an explanatory video you just watched? The platform could match you with half a dozen other students who are working on that video, too. Those other students might not be moving through the course at the same pace you are, but, as of right now, they’re right where you are. In theory, with even more students enrolled (and determined to complete) courses, it should be even easier to assemble such a just-in-time cohort. The Coursera team had peer assessment in mind for this, but I was thinking of Mike Caulfield’s 2011 “Ed Roulette” idea. I would love to see what could be done with this idea. The Coursera platform, as it stands now, actually doesn’t do much to leverage the incredible number of students in any given MOOC as a strength.

During the opening keynote, Andrew Ng spent a fair amount of time talking about potential revenue models for Coursera. Actually, make that model, not models. Ng focused squarely on Coursera’s Signature Track option, which provides students the ability to earn “verified certificates” for a fee on the order of $50. Last year, 1.2% of all Coursera enrollments were on the Signature Track. This year that percentage has doubled to 2.4%. Revenue from the Signature Track has been growing exponentially ($1 million, $2 million, $4 million over several months), but Andrew Ng joked that such growth can’t last forever. He also pointed out that Signature Track rates in Coursera’s new “specializations” (multiple course sequences that lead to special certificates) are higher than in typical courses, arguing for specializations as a stronger source of revenue going forward.

Let me reiterate: I didn’t hear mention of any other revenue model in the opening and closing keynotes at the conference. Coursera may have other plans, but it’s clear that Signature Track is where the money is right now. That’s part of the motivation for a set of conversations at the conference on the trouble with Statements of Accomplishment. Those are the free “certificates” that a student can obtain by completing courses on Coursera. Apparently, employers are starting to treat SoAs as something of value, which is problematic for two reasons. One, SoAs don’t feature the identity verification that Signature Track certificates provide, making them just a little bit suspect. Two, Coursera isn’t making any money on SoAs. Regardless of how profit-motivated Coursera is, it is pretty clear that they need a sustainable revenue stream if they are to stay afloat. With Signature Track seemingly their best chance for sustainability, the valuing of SoAs by employers poses a challenge.

Will Coursera stop issuing free certificates of completion? Their rival Udacity just did. A similar move by Coursera wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Imagine a traditional university offering two kinds of diplomas, one for free and one for tuition. If employers valued the free diploma just as much as they valued the paid diploma, universities would have a hard time including tuition revenue as part of their sustainability plans. That said, I suspect that for some MOOC students, the prospect of earning a free Statement of Accomplishment helps motivate them to complete their MOOCs (and, presumably, learn something along the way). If SoAs go away, I wonder what might be provided to provide this kind of motivation. I found myself, in these conversations at the conference, actually floating the idea of badges for the first time! Of course, what is a Statement of Accomplishment if not a badge?

Two more fun facts from the conference keynotes:

  • Select an arbitrary MOOC hosted on Coursera. Google the course’s topic. Odds are, the MOOC will be one of the first few results returned. That’s some pretty serious publicity for the university offering that MOOC!
  • Across all Coursera courses, only 4-5% of students who sign up for a course complete the course. Among Signature Track enrollments, the completion rate is — are you ready? — upwards of 90%. Often 95% or 98%. That’s not too surprising, given that Signature Track requires an up front financial investment. What was more surprising to me was that at the “learning hubs” that Coursera has helped set up around the world, where students can gather to take MOOCs and find community, the completion rate is typically 50-60%. Why the much higher completion rates? I hope someone is researching this. From my experience participating in a MOOC study group at Vanderbilt, I suspect a big reason is the motivational effect of the persistent relationships these local learning communities foster. That’s a good sign for the CIRTL Network MOOCs and our plans to actively support such local learning communities!

Image: “London Eye, Night,” by Derek Bruff, Flickr (CC)

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