Coursera: Web College Smash Hit

By Shlomo Maital   

                    Coursera Daphne Koller & Andrew Ng

     Just one year ago, two Stanford University lecturers, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, took a leave of absence to launch a startup, Coursera, to supply on-line web-based college courses.  The website was officially launched in August.  Today, just one year from the inception of the idea and months from launch, it was two million faithful enrollees…a faster takeoff than either Facebook or Twitter! Some 70,000 students sign up each week (a number equal to three or four Stanford University’s!).  The company has posted more than 200 free classes taught by professors at 33 top universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech.

    Education writer Tamar Lewin tells the story in the Jan. 6 edition of The New York Times.  [“Students Rush to Web Classes, but Profits May Be Much Later”.]

    Coursera’s secret of success?   First, the price. It’s free.  Nothing beats the word ‘free’.  Second, the courses.  They have such catchy titles as Human-Computer Interaction,  and Songwriting and Gamification. Highly relevant for young people seeking skills and knowledge.   Third, the teachers. Faculty come from top universities, like Stanford and Caltech.

    Lewin reports that college education is migrating to the Web with incredible speed:   

   “Universities nationwide are increasing their online offerings, hoping to attract students around the world. New ventures like Udemy help individual professors put their courses online. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have each provided $30 million to create edX. Another Stanford spinoff, Udacity, has attracted more than a million students to its menu of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, along with $15 million in financing. “

     What is Coursera’s business model?  Well…it doesn’t have one yet, following the Google principle (create value, THEN later think about monetizing it, after it is validated).  Notes Lewin:  “Ms. Koller has plenty of …. ideas, as well. She is planning to charge $20, or maybe $50, for certificates of completion. And her company, like Udacity, has begun to charge corporate employers, including Facebook and Twitter, for access to high-performing students, starting with those studying software engineering.”

    Soon, brick-and-mortar colleges will give credits for Coursera courses. In fact, they’ve already begun to. “This fall, Ms. Koller was excited about news she was about to announce: Antioch University’s Los Angeles campus had agreed to offer its students credit for successfully completing two Coursera courses, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and Greek and Roman Mythology, both taught by professors from the University of Pennsylvania. Antioch would be the first college to pay a licensing fee — Ms. Koller would not say how much — to offer the courses to its students at a tuition lower than any four-year public campus in the state.”

    Everything related to the Web happens with blinding speed, faster than we would expect.  Conventional universities must wake up and quickly embrace this new technology; after all, schools that claim to innovate new knowledge should practice what they preach.