Some academics enjoyed nothing more than seeing the “Moocs bubble” burst. But it turns out that those who scoffed at massive open online courses may have unwittingly been playing into the hands of the innovation they were disparaging.
Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, told Times Higher Education that the hype around online courses and whether they would destroy traditional universities had been the biggest driver of student recruitment to her company, the world’s largest Mooc platform.
Professor Koller, the Rajeev Motwani professor of computer science at Stanford University, said that both the excitement around Moocs and the subsequent realisation that they would not be quite so transformative had been “largely overblown”.
Instead, she argued, Coursera – which now has 20 million users and 145 course providers, including some of the world’s leading universities – was “making significant, steady progress in democratising access to education”.
And despite some robust debate, Professor Koller said that the Moocs hype had not been a bruising experience – far from it.
“A lot of our early learner growth came from PR: people heard about us through PR and said, ‘I’m going to go and check it out,’” Professor Koller said. “We reached 20 million learners with minimal marketing costs, largely because of the PR cycle around us.
“I don’t think learners care much about whether we are going to destroy universities or not; they are not the target audience for that message. What they care about is that they can take courses from amazing universities at a very affordable cost.”
Coursera’s latest innovations include the development of online-only postgraduate degrees, and Professor Koller acknowledged that it was “a possibility” that full undergraduate degrees might one day be offered on the platform.
She said that the undergraduate market represented a “bigger challenge” than the postgraduate sector, highlighting the enduring appeal of a three- or four-year residential experience and the additional support that new entrants to higher education might require.
Nevertheless, Professor Koller said that a Coursera-based bachelor’s degree could be “highly beneficial” to learners who wanted a more flexible educational experience, delivered in partnership with traditional universities.
Where Moocs could be revolutionary for universities, she argued, was in the transformation of higher education into a data science. Collecting hundreds of millions of pieces of information on students’ engagement with courses that ran regularly allowed for swift improvement in and experimentation with course content, explained Professor Koller, who said that the pace of change in programmes offered by traditional universities was “glacial” in comparison.
“This is a place where the technology can inform and then drive educational innovation,” she said. “It’s turning education into a data science in ways that I don’t think are possible when…in a traditional educational setting…you teach a course once a year and you get a measurement at the end of the semester.
“It’s impossible to learn quickly enough and iterate enough to make massive improvements, [but online courses change that] because of the number of students that engage and because a new cohort starts every two weeks, so you tweak something and a couple of weeks later you already know if it’s working and then you can either continue to refine or revert and try something else.”