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Can MOOC platforms galvanise universal education in India?

Harshith Mallya
28th Apr 2017
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How successful have Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) platforms been in creating a level playing field for global education? YourStory spoke to Nikhil Sinha, CBO of Coursera, to better understand the sector and Coursera’s progress in this space.

Technology has long been considered a double-edged sword, and a recent World Economic forum (WEF) report notes that it has the potential to either reinforce the global divide or bridge the gap. It states,

What we have today is more than we dared to imagine yesterday: new business models, new ways of communicating, and new job disciplines. The pace of technological change has brought the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution… (but) without a decisive plan for inclusivity at all levels of society, the revolution will fail the very people it should benefit the most.

Levelling the playing field

Universal basic income and universal education have been cited to be among the few possible ways to level the playing field and uplift society as a whole. While implementation of the former is a tough regulatory task, the world has seen great progress in the latter.

MOOC platforms like Coursera, Khan Academy, Udacity, and edX, as well as Indian players like Unacademy are making access to education open to all. The modus operandi of most of the MOOC platforms is simple–learners can access all the content for free, but need to pay a fee to access assignments and get the necessary certification for the course. While auditing courses in universities for self-enrichment and academic exploration has long been a common practice, moving it online is increasing the impact manifold.

YourStory recently spoke to Nikhil Sinha, CBO of Coursera, to better understand the MOOCs space, Coursera’s growth story, and its recent initiatives. Excerpts:

Nikhil Sinha, CBO at Coursera.

Story so far

Coursera was founded in 2012 by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew NG. According to a report in All Things D, Coursera evolved, in part, out of the popular Stanford classes that NG taught in 2012 on machine learning.

Five years since, Coursera has evolved as an online education company that now offers courses, specialisations, and degrees from 150 of the world’s top universities and educational institutions (more on this later). Its also claims to have over 25 million registered learners who take one of its 2,000 courses available across topics like business, technology and data science, and even creative arts.

Coursera has raised about $146 million in multiple rounds of funding so far, and is backed by venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, International Finance Corporation, Laureate Education Inc., and Learn Capital.

Coursera’s second largest market–India

Talking to YourStory about Coursera’s growth, Sinha says,

We are currently the largest higher education platform in the world in terms of registered learners.

Coursera claims to have learners in every country in the world. Sinha notes that while the US, India, and China are the top three markets in terms of registered learners, the US, India, and the UK take the top spots in terms of global revenue distribution.

He also states that Coursera adds about 600,000 learners per month, and that it is also looking to partner with more universities. Till 2016, Coursera was mainly focused on individual learners, and the company has so far partnered with educational institutions like Stanford University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, HEC Paris, The National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Indian School of Business.

Sinha says that while Coursera sees a consistent growth rate across the world, in India it is growing faster than the global average, with about 2 million Indian learners enrolled in various courses, which can range from a few weeks to about two years.

An online course in entrepreneurship?

In April, Coursera announced its partnership with HEC Paris to foster entrepreneurship skills through an online Master’s in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OMIE).

As a part of the initiative, students will work in teams over a six-month period on a project of choice, from the planning stage to bringing the idea to life. They will receive mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders who will meet with them once a week.

Successful graduates will be able to move their respective projects into its next phase by applying for seed funding from HEC Paris, and then work at HEC’s incubator. Coursera CEO Rick Levin is hopeful that the OMIE will make learning from a top business school attainable to people globally, particularly in India, where entrepreneurship has exploded in recent years. He said in a statement,

This is a degree for ambitious students who want to gain access to an international network of entrepreneurs and build high impact companies. Thanks to a curriculum based on stackable credentials, participants can benefit at each level of learning. They can choose a single course, decide to specialise in one program, or embark on a full-fledged degree.

In 2016, Coursera widened its focus from individual learners to new verticals, ‘Coursera for Business’ and ‘Coursera for Governments and non-profits’, where it aims to works with startups and enterprises, and local governments respectively.

Helping businesses retain employees

With about 150 global university partners, ‘Coursera for Business’ lets small and large organisations create learning and development programmes based on their needs.

Sinha states that after the US, India is the largest market for Coursera's business vertical, with Axis Bank, Manipal Group, and Infosys among the enterprises that have so far leveraged this platform.

Coursera price points for small and large organisations. Screengrab from their website.

Now, with the fear of automation and AI taking over mid-level jobs considered a real threat, picking lifelong learning skills has gained greater importance. Sinha says,

A majority of our learners are between the ages of 25 and 50. Many of them are looking to acquire new skills or upgrade their skills to launch new careers or accelerate their current career trajectories.

Sinha says that learners for their business category include recent college graduates, looking to pick up new skills, and also experienced professionals in their 40s looking to augment existing skills or pick up some new ones. Talking about the dynamic job environment, Sinha notes the importance for companies to invest in training and development initiatives to retain employees. He states,

Millennials generally value learning over other incentives they could get at a company… The opportunity for life-longing is sometimes more important than even the compensation they get, in some cases.

Working with governments and non-profits

Coursera works with governments and non-profits to impart skills-based training to help a nation’s constituents succeed in a world with a constantly changing workforce. Sinha notes that Coursera has worked with the governments and local bodies of many countries like Egypt, Kazakhistan, Singapore, Pakistan, and Malaysia. In most cases, the course needs have been related to workforce development and the training of entrepreneurs.

In light of the Indian government pushing the Digital India initiative in recent times, YourStory enquired as to whether Coursera is in talks with the Indian government or any local bodies for this initiative. Sinha stated that they don’t have a real comment at this stage, but that they are in talks with people for possible collaborations.

Coursera’s mobile focus

Coursera apps on tablet and mobile.

Sinha notes that Coursera has invested heavily in their mobile app to appeal to global users who may not have access to laptops and also have unstable internet connections. He said,

“Ninety six percent of all our courses can be completed entirely on a phone. Our team has worked hard to build a heterogeneous data-fetching framework to support a seamless online/offline experience. We see the vast majority of paying learners using the app as a companion to complete their courses.”

Some of the mobile features include:

  1. The ability to read transcripts while watching video and highlight important sections for reference.
  2. Offline access: Learners can click on the cloud symbol next to the video to download the video and watch it later without an internet connection.
  3. Audio mode: Learners can listen to the content in audio mode, lowering draining effects on their phone’s battery.

Impact of MOOCs and dealing with ‘virtual dropouts’

Sinha believes that some of the current metrics to track the effectiveness of MOOC platforms are incorrect. He argues that while MOOC platforms allow casual learners to audit courses, they shouldn’t be counted in course completion data. He says,

The right measure for course completion is to track users who have signed up and paid for a course completion certificate. The completion rate for these learners is over 65 percent now, which is comparable to completion rates at traditional campuses.

Coursera also leverages multiple in-built tools like reminders, emails, push notifications, and mentors to nudge learners to complete their courses and get their certifications.

Sinha believes that MOOC platforms have showcased tangible career benefits for learners in the form of raises or promotions. He cites Coursera’s 2017 Learner Outcomes Survey, which notes that Indian online learners reported greater career and educational benefits as compared to those in the US and UK.

Future plans

Coursera currently consists of about 250 employees worldwide, and Sinha notes that it aims to increase its employee base across technology, sales, and marketing roles by 50 percent in the next 18 months.

On being asked about the prospects of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) and their impact on the educational space, Sinha believes that it will make an impact in the long run, when the technology becomes more mainstream. Right now, he believes that providing a custom learning plan to suit different individuals based on their learning patterns is important. He says,

Creating individualised learning plans for users, based on their current skills and their future aspirations, is the next focus of growth.

Website- Coursera

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