What is Coursera’s innovation?

[This post is an edited version of part of my end of module assessment for H817 – Openness and innovation in e-learning, where I chose to evaluate Coursera]

 Coursera is arguably the most high-profile and certainly the largest provider of massively open online courses (“MOOCs”) in the world, with over 4 million registrants (Anders, 2013). MOOCs were originally informal experiments run by academics wanting to explore new ways of learning and interacting enabled by technology (MOOCs, 2012). However, the co-founders of Coursera, both Stanford professors, were more interested in the potential of technology to lower the cost of delivering education and expand its reach. As an experiment, they and colleagues opened up three of their Stanford courses to open access and attracted over 100,000 registrants on each. This persuaded them to leave their jobs, focus on this area full-time and venture capitalists to finance them (Kamenetz, 2012).

Coursera, a commercial company, does not develop content or award qualifications. Instead it partners with universities, mostly in the US, who create courses to be delivered online using Coursera’s platform. The platform allows for recorded lectures, discussion forums, quizzes and supplementary reading. Assessment is by multiple choice, or other auto-graded mechanisms for technical subjects, and peer graded essays for humanities. Certificates are awarded for successfully completing these (Coursera, n.d., Koller, 2012). Coursera does not specifically offer guidance or support to partner universities, although it does take account of feedback (Armstrong, 2012).

The exact innovation that Coursera brings is harder to pin down than it may seem. Their founders seem to imply that their key innovation is online education itself, a new field where we are now making exciting discoveries about what works (Koller, 2012). This is misleading and has raised a number of objections (Bates, 2012). Online education goes back to 1994 (Hill, 2012) and in 2011, before Coursera was invented, there were 6 million students in the US studying online (about a third of the total student population) and this was growing at a much faster rate than the student body as a whole. Ironically, the growth rate dipped slightly in 2012, though was still rapid (Allen & Seaman, 2013).

Perhaps the innovation is the partnership with top names in the academic world? There is no question that the founders’ Stanford background has been a major contributor to the attention Coursera has received. Here too, the novelty can be exaggerated. Leading academics have been communicating to a mass audience via television for decades. For example, Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation”, broadcast in 1969, was considered a landmark series, where a respected academic shared their knowledge with the public, accompanied by high-quality filming (Wikipedia, n.d.). YouTube has existed since 2005 and many academic lectures and broadcasts are available on demand there. Apple’s iTunesU began in 2007 and, even three years ago, contained over 350,000 files with academic content, downloaded over 300 million times (Wauters, 2010).

One aspect of the innovation is that lectures are broken up with interactive puzzles (De Freitas, 2013), while others have commented on the fact that videos, activities and social media-type interaction is all “organised and sequenced” (Kamenetz, 2012) in a similar way to a traditional university course. Pulling these threads together, I would identify Coursera’s innovation as combining a number of factors as follows:

The innovation is making sequenced, coherent online content associated with big name universities easily accessible for free to anyone with an internet connection, combined with social media-type opportunities for interaction relating to the content.

Coursera is often grouped with Udacity and edX, but there are significant differences between them. Udacity’s content is internally generated and confined to topics around computer science, which lend themselves to automated assessment better than humanities. EdX is a not-for-profit funded by Harvard and MIT, arguably as a “skunkworks” to assist them in developing their online strategies (Armstrong, 2012). Coursera’s breadth of content and partners and bold search for a business model make it unique. As such, it has attracted a lot of comment, positive and negative. This will be reviewed in my next blog post, along with thoughts about their future.



Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, Babson Survey Research Group [online]. Available at http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf (accessed 18 August 2013).

Anders, G. (2013) ‘Coursera Hits 4 Million Students – And Triples Its Funding’ Forbes [online]. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2013/07/10/coursera-hits-4-million-students-and-triples-its-funding/ (accessed 24 August 2013).

Armstrong, L. (2012) ‘Coursera and MITx – sustaining or disruptive?’, Changing Higher Education, 6 August [online]. Available at http://www.changinghighereducation.com/2012/08/coursera-.html (accessed 29 April 2013).

Bates, T. (2012) ‘What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, August 5 [online]. Available at http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/ (accessed 17 August 2013).

Coursera (n.d.) About Coursera [online]. Available at https://www.coursera.org/about (accessed 24 August 2013).

De Freitas, S. (2013) MOOCs: The Final Frontier for Higher Education?, Coventry University. Advance copy supplied by the author.

Hill, P. (2012) ‘Online Educational Delivery Models: A Descriptive View’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 6 [online]. Available at http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/online-educational-delivery-models-descriptive-view (accessed 18 December 2013).

Kamenetz, A. (2012) ‘The Coursera Effect’’, Fast Company, August 8 [online]. Available at http://www.fastcompany.com/3000042/how-coursera-free-online-education-service-will-school-us-all (accessed 17 August 2013).

Koller, D. (2012) What we’re learning from online education, TED video [online]. Available at http://www.ted.com/talks/daphne_koller_what_we_re_learning_from_online_education.html (accessed 17 August 2013).

MOOCs (2012), YouTube video, added by M.Weller [online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1G4SUblnbo (accessed 29 April 2013).

Wauters, R. (2010) ‘Apple Shares iTunes U Stats: 350,000 Files Available, 300 Million Downloads So Far’, TechCrunch, August 24 [online]. Available at http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/24/apple-shares-itunes-u-stats-350000-files-available-300-million-downloads/ (accessed 25 August 2013).

Wikipedia (2013) Civilisation (TV series) [online]. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilisation_(TV_series) (accessed 18 August 2013).



1 Comment

Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

One response to “What is Coursera’s innovation?

  1. Pingback: Coursera’s impact to date and future | learningshrew

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