Coursera started with a mission to give the general public free access to courses from expensive colleges. Now it is selling all the course content developed for those free courses to colleges that want to use the materials in their own campus programs.
The company, which was started by two Stanford University professors in 2012 and is now one of the most well-funded in the education industry, has always been highly picky about which colleges it works with to develop courses. But in a new effort announced Thursday, called Coursera for Campus, the company will begin selling access to its complete library of courseware to any college to use, at around $400 per student.
Coursera has offered a similar arrangement for about three years to corporate partners that wanted to let their employees take its online courses as a professional development benefit. At least a few colleges had already purchased those licensing plans. But Coursera for Campus is designed specifically with colleges in mind, says Leah Belsky, Coursera’s vice president of enterprise. That means the service includes new features tailored for use in an academic environment, including plagiarism detection to spot cheaters and integration with existing student gradebooks in the learning management systems (LMS) that colleges use.
“It’s basically a way to monetize all the content they have.”
—Phil Hill, edtech consultant
Meanwhile, Coursera is opening up its technology platform to any college to use for free to deliver course materials on their own campuses. That means that colleges could use the Coursera software as an alternative to their learning-management system. Belsky argues that Coursera’s system is better designed for delivering online courses and interactive lessons than most LMSes.
“We’re talking about a potential major disruption to the LMS market,” she says. “We don’t have all the features of an LMS but what we do have is all the tools to create cutting-edge interactive learning experiences.”
The non-profit edX, which was started by MIT and Harvard University soon after Coursera was founded and offers similar online services, also offers a free—and open-source—version of its platform, but colleges have to host it themselves. Coursera is allowing free access to its fully hosted platform, though its code is not open.
Phil Hill, a consultant who has long followed the edtech industry, doubts that colleges will dump their existing learning management systems to use Coursera’s free tools. While some colleges might try it as a “secondary LMS” for a few courses, “I do not see this as a credible threat to become the primary LMS of a campus” because it does not fully tie into other campus systems, like student registration databases.
“This struck me as more of a courseware play than a platform play,” he says. Besides, he adds, selling courseware is more lucrative than just software. “It’s basically a way to monetize all the content they have,” he adds.
The offering may be part of an attempt to bolster Coursera's case for an IPO, adds Hill. “If they want to go public, they want to have revenue streams and scalable [markets],” he adds. “It’s important to build that story to try to go public. They need to show a story of growth.”
Will Colleges Buy It?
Colleges have tried to offer courses built around MOOC materials before—and it hasn’t always gone well.
In 2013, professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University refused to teach a philosophy course with materials developed by edX and Harvard University, arguing that doing so could lead to cuts in faculty members and lower-quality instruction.
But Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, which is a Coursera partner, believes colleges have learned from those early missteps.
Rascoff says that colleges will likely be most interested in using the Coursera materials to create new courses they don’t already offer, especially in fast-changing technical fields that MOOC companies including Coursera have focused on in recent years.
Belsky, of Coursera, echoes that. “Universities are trying to get in the game of teaching other digital skills,” she says. For colleges that want to compete with new upstart coding bootcamps, for instance, “it’s all the content they need to launch these programs” with their own faculty members.
And the larger market for this new offering could be outside of the U.S. Among the first customers is the Indian university Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.
Coursera flew Rascoff to the university for an event to mark the launch of the new product, since Duke courses are among the ones that the Indian university will use. “This is a new way of thinking about how you do global partnerships,” says Rascoff. “We’re basically sharing our secret sauce with these startup universities to help them grow and help them succeed.”
While Duke stands to share some of the revenue from the effort, Rascoff argues that “the money is really not the point.”
“It’s how to build global systems for knowledge sharing and diffusion of innovation across all of these borders,” he says.