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Inside the Coursera Hype Machine | The Nation

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Inside the Coursera Hype Machine

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Coursera founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The quest continues among venture capitalists to find the next Facebook, the next Google, the next eBay—and the Silicon Valley hype machine is suggesting that it might be Coursera, the “leader of the pack” among companies trying to make money with massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The hype, and the money behind it, are creating new pressures on colleges and universities to replace faculty members in the classroom with online video lectures. That, they say, would bring the genius of the free market to higher education by reducing labor costs (i.e., professors) and introducing economies of scale (teaching tens of thousands of students in a single course). Time magazine included Coursera’s two co-founders on its 2013 list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World,” and Inc. magazine named Coursera one of its “25 Most Audacious Companies” this year. Since April 2012, Coursera has raised $65 million in venture capital; investors include Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire whose earlier picks include Facebook, Zynga and Twitter. One IBM director declared that “Coursera will be the Amazon of this industry.” 

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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Coursera, which claims that 4.5 million people have registered for its 431 courses, has a lofty mission statement: “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” That’s an appealing idea for the millions who can’t afford or get into elite colleges: students in MOOCs could learn online from legendary lecturers like Simon Schama on British history or Robert Hughes on modern art, instead of some boring mediocrity on the faculty at State U. This will appeal to students, it is said, because they won’t have to go to class; they can watch the lectures on their laptops, anytime and anywhere they want. It’s win-win for everybody, except the professors who will lose their jobs. (Disclosure: I’m a professor.) 

But it turns out that the millions of college students who need credits to graduate don’t need Simon Schama or Robert Hughes; they need Algebra 1 and Economics 1 and English Composition. If they find those courses difficult and boring in the classroom, imagine what it’s like watching them on laptops, alone—even with lectures by the Simon Schama of Algebra 1. But if Coursera is going to make money, it will have to be from those kids—and how do you make money if your product is free, as Coursera’s is? Maybe that’s why Inc. said the company’s next big obstacle is “finding a revenue model that satisfies investors.”

There’s nothing new about free college lectures online; thousands of courses have been available for a while now at iTunes U and on YouTube. If you’re looking for the Amazon of online higher education, forget about Coursera; it’s iTunes U, which reported in February that downloads of its courses had topped 1 billion. iTunes U has 1,200 college and university partners compared with Coursera’s eighty-five, including such schools as Stanford, Yale, MIT, Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley alone offers eighty-six courses on iTunes U, including Thomas Laqueur’s famous lectures on European history from the Renaissance to 1989. Yale offers sixty-eight at iTunes U through its “Open Yale” program, including David Blight on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Harvard offers some of its most famous professors at iTunes U as well, including Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice. Another popular course, on general chemistry offered by Ohio State professor Matthew Stoltzfus, had an enrollment of more than 100,000 the first year it was offered. The most popular courses on iTunes U enroll as many as 500,000 students. 

The iTunes U courses are downloaded; YouTube offers thousands on streaming video. Neither offers anything like the Coursera system, in which a particular course starts on a specific date, with video lectures uploaded every week (although the iTunes U iPad app offers some "in-session" classes with a specific start date). Nor do they offer Coursera’s forums, where students are invited to pose questions and provide answers, or Coursera’s paper assignments and grades—but the value of those is questionable (see my experience, below). 

People have been trying to make money with online courses for years. Those familiar full-page magazine ads for “The Great Courses” offer online videos, but for a hefty price: Gary Gallagher’s University of Virginia course on the Civil War, for example, costs $440 for forty-eight lectures. But that approach has never attracted big-time venture capital. And lots of colleges have extensive online course offerings for which they charge tuition. Oregon State, for example, offers 900 courses online for credit. But these are not MOOCs, because they are not massive or open. You register with the school, pay tuition, work with faculty in their courses and earn credit toward a degree. 

With Coursera, however, you don’t get credit toward a degree. In fact, to sign up for anything with Coursera, you have to agree to the terms, which include the following: “You acknowledge that…Coursera’s Online Courses will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution, and do not convey academic credit.” That’s not a problem for the vast majority who have signed up so far. As co-founder and co-CEO Daphne Koller concedes, they are “people who already had degrees and wanted to continue their education.” Many seem to be retired. Coursera is great for them, and so are iTunes U and YouTube. But the big hope for Coursera—at least, the big hope for those investors—lies in signing up millions of college students who want a degree. 

Coursera has announced that some schools can now offer credit, but the number turns out to be shockingly low—and the number of students actually receiving credit seems to be close to zero. In the fall of 2012, Colorado State University–Global Campus became the first US college to offer credit to students who passed a MOOC, but in the summer of 2013 it announced that not a single student had signed up—despite the fact that it was a really cheap way to earn credits: $89 instead of the $1,050 tuition for a three-credit course on campus. Antioch University Los Angeles, which has no tenured faculty and only about 200 undergraduates, announced last fall that it would offer credit for two Coursera MOOCs. I e-mailed the director of communications, Joanna Gerber, asking how many students had enrolled, but she didn’t reply. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, based in Chicago, helps adult students get college credit for nontraditional learning experiences. Their program, called “LearningCounts,” reported in July that only one student who completed a MOOC had received credit toward a degree—at Excelsior College, a nonprofit online institution. And according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, not a single person in that program even attempted to get academic credit for a Coursera course—or for courses from rivals edX or Udacity, for that matter. 

Coursera’s big hope for making money comes from attracting students to content supplied by a growing roster of prestigious partner institutions. The list now includes Columbia, Yale and the University of Chicago. But these institutions are not offering course credit to their own students who enroll in Coursera MOOCs, or to anybody else: they are simply providing videos of lectures for anybody who wants to watch—some of which are already available on iTunes U and YouTube. 

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