Coursera’s impact to date and future

[This post is an edited version of part of my end of module assessment for H817 – Innovation and Openness in E-learning. It follows on from my previous post on Coursera]

 Coursera and, to a lesser extent, edX and Udacity, have had an enormous impact on popular awareness and the media. They have spawned countless newspaper articles, blog posts and comments, prompting the New York Times to designate 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012), and TechCrunch to award Coursera the title “Startup of the Year” (Tsotsis, 2013). They have also convinced hard-nosed venture capitalists to invest over $60m in the venture (Empson, 2013).

Coursera’s impact can also be measured in terms of those using its services. Its early growth prompted co-founder Andrew Ng to boast that it was growing “faster than Facebook” (Pappano, 2012), and latest figures show the number of “Courserians” exceeding 4 million (Anders, 2013). Even given completion rates of 5-15% (Universities UK, 2013), this means that around 400,000 people have completed a Coursera course. That represents a huge amount of delivery for a company that has been going for less than two years – few existing institutions can boast anything like this reach and certainly none have achieved it with anything like this speed.

Granted, it is not necessarily sensible to compare Courserians with students enrolling at accredited institutions. The experience of viewing lectures, doing some quizzes and participating in largely unmoderated discussion boards differs greatly from anything understood as a degree programme at UK or US HE institutions – in fact even the use of the term “student” is probably unhelpful (Byerly, 2012). Even so we can hope many or most those using Coursera gained from the experience.

Many expect Coursera to go on to have a much greater impact than this (see below) but, even if it does not, its impact can already be felt in three different ways.

Firstly, it has raised the credibility and profile of online education in a dramatic and probably irreversible way. Hill (2012) argues that universities now must address online education as a strategic issue, even if they decide their strategy is not to do it. As he puts it:

“Before six months ago, the biggest and easiest argument against the power of online education was that it would never provide the quality of face-to-face education…Yet now that elite institutions are publicly extolling the value and quality potential of online education, and are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars, this argument has been delegitimized.”

Or put another way, online learning is not new but, now that big-name universities are involved, it has become respectable.

Secondly, Coursera has played a key part in attracting investment into the field – investment that is needed if we are going to explore and realise the potential of online education. The funds they have raised are part of a much bigger trend – Universities UK (2013) cite research showing that investment in educational technology globally rose from $204m in 2008 to $900m in 2012 (Universities UK, 2013, citing Goldman Sachs).

Thirdly, it has contributed to the internationalisation of higher education. Over the past decade, advancing technology has led to the creation of a number of globally dominant companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook (de Freitas, 2013). It is suggestive that, whereas 10% of students at UK universities currently come from overseas, two-thirds of enrolments on MOOCs are from those outside the US (Universities UK, 2013).


Coursera has attracted criticism from many quarters (e.g. Hill, 2012, Bates, 2012, Young, 2012). The key tactical issues identified are:

1) If Coursera does not find a workable revenue model, it will fail and it is far from clear what that model will be, or whether it will impact the user experience negatively (e.g. introducing advertising).

2) Assessment and authentication of learning is one of the key roles of higher education and as yet no one can do this reliably at scale. Indeed, even Coursera’s unaccredited courses have encountered significant plagiarism issues (Young, 2012). Without this, Coursera courses appear more like training or, at the higher end, professional development, rather than higher education.

3) Completion rates are low, although this is perhaps an unfair criticism. The courses are free and will attract a high proportion of browsers. Perhaps people simply want to dip into the material rather than work through it all, and that does not need to be seen as a problem. This point has been highlighted from the beginning in relation to MOOCs (MOOCs, 2012).

There are perhaps three more fundamental criticisms. Firstly, it is not hard to accuse Coursera of arrogance and ignoring decades of others’ experience in online learning (Bates, 2012). When Daphne Koller called her TED talk “What we’re learning from online education” (Koller, 2012), she did not mean “we” the large community who have been delivering education online for many years – she meant “we” Coursera. The Stanford professors and their elite partners assume they can do online teaching well but as Daniel (2012) observes:

“The so-called elite universities that are rushing into xMOOCs gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online.”

Some see this reflected in the poor pedagogical quality of Coursera courses (Armstrong, 2012), although others are more positive on this (Glance et al, 2013).

Secondly, Watters (2013) argues that the cMOOCs lack any informed or positive vision of what education is, or should be. In fact, noting that the xMOOCs largely emerged from research on artificial intelligence, she sees their vision of “machine learning” as carrying significant risks to the future of education.

Thirdly, it is very clear that MOOCs work best for those who are already educated and have developed study skills. This point was made in the early days of MOOCs (McAuley et al, 2010) and has been borne out by Coursera’s admission that 80% of their students already have a first degree and 40% have a masters degree (Universities UK, 2013). This does not eliminate their value, but it makes it hard to claim they are bringing new opportunities to the masses.

What next?

As noted above, Coursera has already had a significant impact by changing the way we think and talk about online education. However, its future as an organisation is unclear.

In an unexpected strategic move, they are now looking to work with existing, physical universities (Kolowich, 2013), positioning themselves as a platform for online education (a space that is surely already fairly crowded) and possibly scaling up content to offer across a number of universities. This could solve two problems for them – creating a business model and providing support to their learners, but it does carry risks and some have seen this as a significant retreat from their initial vision (Weller, 2013).

Coursera badly needs a plausible way of generating significant revenue quickly. Their backers have invested over $60m (Empson, 2013) and will need the prospect of repayment fairly soon. Ideas of licensing content, or generating revenues from verifying identity (Anders, 2013), seem unlikely to produce the sort of returns needed. It must be an open question whether Coursera will still exist in, say, five years’ time.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are here to stay. EdX, funded by Harvard and MIT, can take a longer view. Universities are likely to continue to offer MOOCs, using their own or a shared platform, as part of their marketing efforts if nothing else – a goal implied by recent comments from David Cameron (Futurelearn, 2013). Google are exploring the market, launching a software package called CourseBuilder and even running their own MOOC (Daniel, 2012). The Open University has entered the fray with their Futurelearn platform. The challenge this brings for all universities to focus on where they add sustainable value (Siemens, 2011) will not go away.



Anders, G. (2013) ‘Coursera Hits 4 Million Students – And Triples Its Funding’ Forbes [online]. Available at (accessed 24 August 2013).

Armstrong, L. (2012) ‘Coursera and MITx – sustaining or disruptive?’, Changing Higher Education, 6 August [online]. Available at (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 (accessed 17 August 2013).

Byerly A. (2012) ‘Formerly Known as Students’ Inside Higher Ed, 29 October [online]. Available at (accessed 29 April 2013).

Daniel, J. (2012) ‘Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education [online]. Available at (accessed 18 August 2013).

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

Empson, R. (2013) ‘Coursera Lands $43M From The World Bank, Yuri Milner & More To Bring Online Education Abroad — And To Phones Near You’, TechCrunch [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Futurelearn (2013) Prime Minister welcomes Futurelearn expansion as British Library and five universities join, February 18 [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Glance, D., Forsey, M. & Riley, M. (2013) ‘The pedagogical foundations of massive open online courses’, First Monday, vol. 18 no. 5-6 [online]. Available at (accessed 18 August 2013).

Hill, P. (2012) ‘Online Educational Delivery Models: A Descriptive View’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 6 [online]. Available at (accessed 18 December 2013).

Koller, D. (2012) What we’re learning from online education, TED video [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Kolowich, S. (2013b) ‘In deals with 10 public universities, Coursera bids for a role in credit-bearing courses’ Chronicle of Higher Education, May 30 [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

McAuley, A., Stewart, B., Siemens, G. and Cormier, D. (2010) The MOOC Model for Digital Practice, Charlottetown, University of Prince Edward Island, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Knowledge synthesis grants on the Digital Economy. Also available online at edblog/ wp-content/uploads/MOOC_Final.pdf (accessed 13 April 2013).

MOOCs (2012), YouTube video, added by M.Weller [online]. Available at (accessed 29 April 2013).

Pappano, L. (2012) ‘The Year of the MOOC’, New York Times, November 2 [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Siemens, G. (2011) ‘Duplication theory of educational value’, Elearnspace [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Tsotsis, A. (2013) ‘Coursera Wins “Best New Startup Of 2012,” Get Schooled’, TechCrunch, January 31 [online]. Available at (accessed 24 August 2013).

Watters, A. (2013) The Three Laws of Ed-Tech Robotics, TEDx video [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Weller, M. (2013) ‘You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now’ The Ed Techie, 30 May [online]. Available at (accessed 24 August 2013).

Young, J. (2012) ‘Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 16 [online]. Available at (accessed 17 August 2013).

Universities UK (2013) Massive open online courses: Higher education’s digital moment? [online]. Available at (accessed 18 August 2013).


1 Comment

Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

One response to “Coursera’s impact to date and future

  1. Pingback: Issues with costs, free and open in education – formulating some ideas for a project | learningshrew

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