Coursera’s Competitive Advantage: Defining the MOOC Industry

Chapter 2. The MOOC Industry and Coursera

Update: This document is now published on ResearchGate with DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.2902.8088

2.1 Supply and Demand Characters of the MOOC Industry

2.1.1 An Overview of MOOC Industrial Chain

Michael Porter, in his updated work The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy (2008), informed us that the first step in a typical industry analysis is identifying the relevant industry, which is done by identifying the products involved. A cursory look at MOOC may lead one to believe that the product of MOOC industry is the courses offered, resulting in an impression of industrial chain as captured in Image 2.1. This industrial chain depicts the content providers supplying courses to a MOOC company which then provides it to its customers, here being the learners.

[Image 2.1  MOOC industrial chain based on flow of content.]

When one looks further though, and asks the question “What product is in the MOOC industry?”, as Porter prescribed, a different picture will emerge. MOOC companies don’t pay content providers for the content they provide. Instead, it’s the content providers who pay the MOOC companies for the platform provided. In the case of Coursera, the share of the work between the company and the content providers is described as follows (McHugh, 2012):

“The universities design and produce the content, and own all IP on that,” Koller says. “We develop the platform and disseminate the courses to students via the platform … many of our partner universities are using these courses as part of the instruction for their own on-campus students, as part of a flipped classroom or blended learning instruction.”

Kolowich (2013, May 2) explained how revenue is shared between Coursera and its university partners:

Coursera offers universities 6 percent to 15 percent of the gross revenue generated by each of their MOOCs on its platform, as well as 20 percent of the profits generated by the “aggregate set of courses provided by the university.”

There is no minimum payment to Coursera – meaning universities are guaranteed a cut of any revenue for their MOOCs on Coursera ….

edX, meanwhile, “offers its university affiliates a choice of two partnership models”, as explained by its president Anant Agarwal (Kolowich, 2013b):

The first, called the “university self-service model,” essentially allows a participating university to use edX’s platform as a free learning-management system for a course on the condition that part of any revenue generated by the course flow to edX. … Once a self-service course goes live on the edX Web site, edX will collect the first $50,000 generated by the course, or $10,000 for each recurring course. The organization and the university partner will each get 50 percent of all revenue beyond that threshold.

The second model, called the “edX-supported model,” casts the organization in the role of consultant and design partner, offering “production assistance” to universities for their MOOCs. The organization charges a base rate of $250,000 for each new course, plus $50,000 for each time a course is offered for an additional term, according to the standard agreement.

Although the edX-supported model requires cash upfront, the potential returns for the university are high if a course ends up making money. The university gets 70 percent of any revenue generated by the course. However, if the university also has self-service courses with edX, the university will not get any revenue from the edX-supported courses until edX has made the equivalent of $50,000 for every new self-service course and $10,000 for every recurring one.

The university partners can choose which model they want to use on a course-by-course basis, and every 12 months they have the opportunity to switch from one to the other.

Assessing this flow of money and the fact that MOOC companies actually court universities to join their platforms (cf. Rivard, 2013; Kolowich, 2013b) we can conclude that the content providers are not suppliers, but instead the first customers of the MOOC companies.

A MOOC company’s content providers are mostly institutes of higher learning and their faculty members, but other kinds of institutions may also provide their own contents, such as Commonwealth Education Trust, Exploratorium (a self-described learning laboratory), the Museum of Modern Art, National Geographic Society, and UNESCO.

The second customers are the learners who consume the content provided by the content providers on MOOC platforms. These learners are mostly individual learners unaffiliated with any institution in enrolling to their MOOCs, but can also be universities or other institutions of learning that collaborate with a MOOC company to officially offer MOOC courses as part of the learning experience offered to their students. The individual learners would most likely have the option to start their enrolment in a course for free while having the option to switch to fee paying track for some premium features while the institutions of learning that collaborate with a MOOC company would always be paying customers of the MOOC company.

One remaining question for us to come up with a new industrial chain would then be, “Who are the suppliers?” If the product is a platform, then the suppliers would be the software and software vendors. This whole industrial chain, now based on the flow of money and content, is captured in Image 2.2.

[Image 2.2  MOOC industrial chain based on flow of money and content.]

Image 2.2 will be the basis of further discussion in this dissertation. With this latter industrial chain in mind, let us now move on to discussing the characters of supply and demand of the MOOC industry.

2.1.2 The Characters of Supply and Demand

A MOOC company provides an online platform that serves a market where two types of customers meet each other: the content providers and the learners. Many MOOCs are offered either for free or on a freemium basis. As described above MOOC customers can be grouped according to the categories described in Table 2.1.

[Table 2.1 Categories of MOOC Customers]

These groups of customers have different needs and for that the MOOC companies offer different products and services to them. To the content providers, the main offer is the online platform through which they can reach their audience. The platforms are designed by integrating pedagogical expertise into it, to make sure the content provided is delivered effectively for the learner’s sake, hence sustaining and probably even enhancing the quality of the content being delivered. When Coursera announced its Series B funding that’s worth $43 million, it highlighted that the funding would enable it “to build the Coursera platform to offer more features” (Coursera secures $43m, 2013). Coursera also highlighted its platform repeatedly and very prominently on its “About” web page (, accessed 5 January 2016), e.g. “Coursera is an education platform …” and on “The Coursera experience”, it states, “It’s simple. We want to help you learn better and faster. That’s why we designed our platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers.”

Likewise with edX; on its “About Us” web page (, accessed 5 January 2016), features a section titled “Our Difference”. One of the two entries state, “Open edX is the open-source platform that powers edX courses and is freely available. With Open edX, educators and technologists can build learning tools and contribute new features to the platform, creating innovative solutions to benefit students everywhere.” Stanford University’s Stanford Online (Stanford, n.d.) is an example of MOOC providers that use edX platform to offer their own MOOCs.

Parts of MOOCs are normally lecture videos and quizzes. The videos may be enriched with formative assessment quizzes integrated into them (only when watched online) while the quizzes, both formative and summative, may be as simple as multiple choice (the questions can be static or dynamic) or can be more complex such as short answers, essays, images, and projects. Scoring thousands upon thousands of these require a sophisticated technology by itself. This technology is also one of the added value MOOC providers offer to the content providers.

For the content providers, the major motivations to engage with MOOCs are to gain channels to disseminate knowledge to a wider audience, such in the case of MIT that has long standing tradition with its OCW; and to gain global presence and better brand awareness with minimal cost, such has been the concern of University College London (cf. Warrell, 2015). Part of the clout for universities to join the MOOC trend may very well be because Stanford, Harvard, and MIT – to name some of the biggest names in HEI – have been at the forefront of this initiative, thus igniting further interest despite early reluctance and resistance.

The pros and contras among universities and professors whether they should embrace use of MOOC have been well documented. Two of the more prominent contras are probably the rejection of Philosophy Department at San José State University to use Prof. Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice” MOOC offered on edX as part of their class (Kolowich, 2013a) and Amherst College’s rejection to partake Harvard and MIT’s edX joint venture (Rivard, 2013).

Resistance to do MOOC is understandable since for universities it involves significant amount of commitment in terms of money, technology, and human resources; the latter includes professors’ as well as teaching assistants’ work time and salary. Professors, for their part, need to allocate a significant time, energy, and mental bandwidth aside from their regular jobs of teaching and research to be involved in this relatively new activity which involves intensive use of technology – all in all can be a very demanding commitment that may be too much to be bearable. Professors who are not popular may also worry that their university’s involvement with MOOC would mean that their job is on the line. They may be replaced by some MOOC from a celebrity professor whose MOOC has gained fame.

On the other hand, more entrepreneurial professors who are good in class and are at ease with technology (or at least have the courage and curiosity to explore the new ones involved in the production of MOOC) may reap benefits beyond their wildest imagination. Prof. Michael J. Sandel whom we discussed previously is a philosopher who has become famous because of his MOOC. In recent years, various titles of his books suddenly appear in many bookstores around the world – something unthinkable apart from the effect of his hugely popular MOOC.


Now let us take a look at the customers’ side of the industry. Platform aside, the greatest thing MOOC brings to the masses is affordable knowledge. As McHugh (2012) wrote, “Not many of us can afford to audit ‘A History of the World since 1300’ Princeton University course; but thanks to the Internet – and Coursera – you can.” Some courses are just too expensive and the professor’s expertise is too narrow to be afforded by many universities, so even when one can pay for it, not many universities would offer the course. Then add in the other cost factors one needs to learn: the tuition fee, the textbooks, the time, the energy. MOOC helps bring expensive courses to one’s living room – or cellphone – at the mere cost of the Internet access.

Once a learner can access the materials, they will have several options in engaging with the MOOCs. The first is freemium style engagement. Students access all learning materials for free, but they are also offered to pay a certain amount of money (usually ranging from $50-$100) for a certificate that bears the logo of the MOOC company and the university that provides the content. Payments can be done either at the beginning of the course, within first several weeks, or at the end of the course depending on each course policy.

Building on top of the fee-paying scheme, MOOC companies may also package several courses into a common offer. This can work either casually or in a formal manner. If casually, then the MOOC company would simply promote the courses as inter-related ones, but there are no incentives or benefits to be enrolled in more than one course within the group. Coursera takes a more formal route of promoting these packaging through their “Specialization” track. On such a track, students must earn paid certificates on each of the course in the track, upon which completion they would be entitled to enrol in another fee paying course, the capstone project. When a learner has successfully completed all the courses, they will receive another certificate, the “Specialization” certificate. By coupling several courses together in this “Specialization” track, Coursera would get income from more courses from the learner.

Last, the closest MOOC companies try to get into traditional universities in granting credentials is in offering degrees through MOOC platform. The degrees offered at this point can be categorised as two. The first is credit-based acknowledgements. Examples of this is edX’s Global Freshman Academy ( and Udacity’s nanodegrees. Nanodegrees are much smaller chunks of a traditional degree by which learners can get acknowledgements of their learning in a much more manageable portions. This may attract people who are in full-time job but want to earn credentials in other areas or expertise. The second is full degrees, for example iMBA offered by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in collaboration with Coursera (Koller, 2015).

Institutional customers may expect more back office support from MOOC companies that will help ease their internal process. In this case universities may either replace or supplement the classes they offer on campus, hence making it either online or blended learning for their tuition fee paying students. This is technically outsourcing some of their core process of teaching and assessing and certainly will help universities increase their efficiency, but understandably it will cause some worry from their professors and some students. For MOOC providers though, this will be another stage in maturing the industry, another opportunity to monetise their product.

A unique case that is worth highlighting is MIT that has been freely sharing their classroom with the world since 2001 on their OCW platform. The spirit is succinctly captured in a quote from Prof. Dick K.P. Yue on its “About OCW” page, “The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone” (, accessed 6 January 2016). MIT believes that freely sharing their knowledge is good for their own productivity since by default it enthuses their professors to keep on improving “their courses and curricula, making their schools more effective” vis-à-vis just recycling teaching materials from semester to semester; in a sense, it’s just like a blood donor gains from a continuously renewed supply of blood within their body.

[Table 2.2 A Summary of MOOC Industry’s Characters of Supply and Demand]

This discussion above is summarised in Table 2.2. Now let us dissect the industry deeper by looking into the five forces working on it.

2.2 The Five Forces of the MOOC Industry

2.2.1 Bargaining Power of Suppliers

The suppliers for MOOC companies are the technology vendors, both software and hardware. It is probably most clearly defined in Wikipedia’s entry on Coursera (2015):

Coursera runs the nginx web server on the Linux operating system on the Amazon Web Services platform with the primary stack in Scala on the Play framework. Data is stored in Amazon S3, and site search is handled by CloudSearch that indexes over 4.3 million documents on the site. Each month Coursera’s database servers (running on RDS) answer 10 billion SQL queries, and Coursera serves around 500 TB of traffic per month. Coursera uses OAuth2 protocol for user authentication and LTI 1.1 protocol for interaction with courses.

Coursera offers parts of their platform to be employed by app developers on their Tech.Coursera site while edX develops an open-source platform. The spirit of generosity behind how these MOOC companies are run means there is little interest in keeping the resources close at hand and closed. The price tags of the supplies either don’t make a significant part of the investment or are simply can be ignored.

These MOOC companies are practically technology companies. All the way from their founders who are some of the best minds in the world of technology, they have real capacity to move upstream to bring these supplies in-house when they want to. Hence, they don’t have a significant degree of dependence to the existing technology vendors, unless probably the economy of scale while the MOOC companies haven’t had enough students and revenue to fund their own upstream operations.

Based on these analyses the bargaining power of supplies on MOOC is low.

2.2.2 Bargaining Power of Buyers

The first buyers of the MOOC industry are the content providers. They have heavy weight bargaining powers in terms of their brand names and the expertise they own. That is not the end of the story, though. These powers are practically offset by the fact that the world’s most renowned universities have jumped into the wagon of MOOC since its earliest days, having created a significant clout for the industry. Universities (and also other knowledge institutions such as research laboratories, museums, etc.) unquestionably have their own domains of expertise embedded within their ecosystem and with their community members. One must stretch one’s imagination quite strenuously though, to wonder what kind of niche domain of expertise is yet to be put in the open by those top names who have been in the MOOC industry.

Another question for the first buyers is their capacity to move downstream and provide their own MOOCs. Education conferences in the past couple of years have been abuzz with these prospects, but as one can see at the current state of the MOOC industry, it’s not easy for the universities to move downstream and offer their own MOOC platform. Issues of huge financial resources with uncertain long term return, IT expertise, distance learning expertise, reallocation of professors’ time and brain-width, to name a few, would easily hinder universities efforts to join the MOOC hype by moving downstream. Couple those factors with the fact that most universities just don’t have the brand and financial viability on the level of Harvard and MIT – who created edX as a joint venture, contributing $30 million each – and Stanford – who makes use of edX’s open source platform, one can conclude that the bargaining power of the content providers is medium-to-low at best.

Our second buyers, the individual learners, are mostly enjoying the MOOC platform for free. They may choose to top up the service they enjoy for a small amount of fee – most fees don’t go beyond $100 per course and they would earn credentials with the logos of the MOOC company and the content provider on their diploma. People don’t have much alternative options to get the value they get from MOOC. Their bargaining power is low.

The last of the second buyers, the institutional customers, have the expertise to deliver their own courses, but for some reason choose to outsource this process to MOOC. They can always pull back on their outsourcing practice and deliver the learning experience in the traditional way. In that case, they would need to conduct some simple benefit-cost analysis in staffing area, student satisfaction, teaching-learning enhancement, and financial bottom line. This market has not been widely explored and universities trying to outsource their learning process to MOOC either using online or blended scheme may face some hurdles from their faculties and student body, so it’s still hard to decide on their bargaining power. In the meantime, MOOC companies may successfully find a sustainably profitable relationship with the individual learners and content providers, making the corporate customers a less necessary factor. In the midst of this underdeveloped market, the bargaining power of the institutional market is low.

2.2.3 Rivalry Among Existing Competitors

The big three of the MOOC industry are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Casadesuss-Masanell & Kim (2015) compile a list of their features as of July 2013 and put them side by side in a table reproduced with adjustment as Table 2.3. Some of these data have been updated to reflect more recent condition.

[Table 2.3 Comparisons of Coursera, Udacity, and edX based on Casadesuss-Masanell & Kim (2015) as of July 2013, updated in January 2016.]

Among these big three, Udacity has found a niche of its own in technical fields. Coursera and edX differ in their scope and level of commitment. Coursera has almost double the number of courses offered by 60% more content providers than edX. One thing that is not captured in the table above is edX courses tend to be more demanding than Coursera’s and they tend to be more closely linked to traditional courses offered in the universities who provide the contents. Coursera’s courses tend to be more accessible with wider options such as “Dino 101” that allow even a Grade 5 student to participate and finish it (cf. Fimansyah, 2015). Discussions in IDCourserians, a community of MOOC learners in Indonesia, also reveal that Coursera cater to wider varieties of lifelong learners and less intimidating for professionals looking for refresher courses.

There are many other smaller players in MOOC and adjacent industries such as iTunes U, Khan Academy, MIT OCW, and Udemy. Compared to all these, the MOOC big three has strong advantage in pedagogically advanced online learning platform and the zero price tag. The smaller MOOCs will still have their own niches but they most likely won’t be an threatening presence.

Among Coursera and edX we also find courses that are offered by the same universities on both platforms. One can see that the competition is friendly, the companies can be said to be working collaboratively – despite not directly – towards similar goals to improve access to education and the well-being of many. For this, the rivalry among existing competitors is low.

2.2.4 Threat of New Entrants

All the incumbents have two major advantages: they have super-advanced IT expertise and access to the world’s top universities. Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller, and Sebastian Thrun were all computer scientists affiliated with Stanford University. edX, as a joint venture of MIT and Harvard, has a huge resource pool to be tapped into. These advantages are incredibly difficult – if not impossible – to emulate or substitute. It is also telling that that all these institutions were started in USA, with two of them started by Stanford professors and started in California. Porter addressed this in his work Clusters and the New Economy of Competition (1998, italic added):

Clusters are geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field. Clusters encompass an array of linked industries and other entities important to competition. … Clusters also often extend downstream … and laterally …. Finally, many clusters include governmental and other institutions – such as universities, standards-setting agencies, think tanks, vocational training providers, and trade associations – that provide specialized training, education, information, research, and technical support.

The big three in MOOC aren’t born in vacuum; they came to be, among else, as a result of their conducive environment that allow all the critical factors to come together and give birth to this new industry. These critical factors include the presence of bright minds and social, governmental, and financial infrastructure that allow these ideas to come to fruition. All these factors mean the barrier to entry is high.

Some notes need to be made that there may be room for niche MOOC markets. A report on MOOCs in 2014 (Shah, 2014) states that across various MOOCs, 80% of the courses are being taught in English with the distant second place goes to Spanish with 8.5% and the other 11 languages share the very small portion of the MOOC landscape. If the promise of MOOC for those who come from less developed nations and don’t speak English, then there is enough room for MOOCs that want to address the needs of non-English speaking audience as well as specialised areas that are embedded to the region on which the world’s top universities may not have knowledge or interest to develop, e.g. local-style skills development that empower people from certain localities.

2.2.5 Threat of Substitute Products or Services

MOOC is a convergence of two industries: IT and education. As such, the substitutionary options would come from the traditional education, distance learning, and online learning industries. One main value proposition that MOOC champions is affordable education coupled with research-informed online platform. This means MOOC is offering education to more people who previously couldn’t have afforded it – be it a first post-secondary education or a continuing education. As such, this value proposition makes MOOC hard to beat by any of the other existing substitutes. Hence, the threat of substitutes is low.

How the overall five forces work on MOOC industry is captured in Image 2.3.

[Image 2.3  The five forces of the MOOC industry.]

2.3 Players in the MOOC Industry

This section outlines prominent actors in the MOOC industry and how they may affect the competition.

2.3.1 Content Providers

As the first customers of the MOOC industry, the content providers are the owners of the knowledge to be shared on MOOC. Most likely they own both the expertise and the intellectual property involved in creating the MOOC. The content providers collaborate with MOOC companies to package their expertise to be delivered on MOOC platform. In the process, they also provide their brand names and their staff members to teach the courses. The staff members are not only the professors who are recorded teaching, but also teaching assistants who help maintain the MOOC web page during the time span the course is live. For the content providers, staff payment would involve one of the biggest financial factors in producing and running a MOOC. At the end of a successful course, students who qualify will receive digital recognition bearing the signature of the content provider alongside that of the MOOC company.

2.3.2 Professors

In case the content provider is a HEI – as is in most cases – the professors would play a key role on an individual MOOC level. As is the case for traditional courses, the professors would decide what goes into the course, assemble the syllabus and teaching resources (which in this case would most likely be more complex than usual), coordinate the teaching assistants, oversee how the whole course runs, and so on. As such the professors would be a major factor in the success of a MOOC: they will need to prepare the teaching script, be filmed either specifically for the online class or in tandem with a face-to-face class they will teach, monitor the teaching assistants and the students’ involvement on the MOOC platform as long as the class is live (if it is time-bound)

The whole ordeal of offering a MOOC can be a great burden for professors who are not accustomed to high technology or aren’t intrigued enough to explore this relatively uncharted area. It is important then for the university to have strong buy-in from their professors.

It is noteworthy that the professors also bring their personal brand and credentials to the course. The professors’ credentials, alongside that of the university’s, can affect the popularity of the course, especially if there are repeat courses. Some professors, such as Prof. Michael J. Sandel (Justice, edX), Prof. Eric Lander (Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life, edX), Prof. Scott Plous (Social Psychology, Coursera), Prof. Barbara Oakley (Learning How to Learn, Coursera), and Prof. Scott Page (Model Thinking, Coursera) have become famous because of the popular courses they teach and when their courses are offered for another term the excellence of their teaching has been a factor people recommend the courses – which is visible in communities such as IDCourserians.

Having a professor who can teach a MOOC properly is a good ingredient for a course to be successful, although how big the impact actually is may need to be studied further. This  is especially interesting to find out for repeating courses where a course’s popularity, rate of premium payment, and financial profitability, would matter more.

2.3.3 Coursera

Coursera is the biggest of the big three in MOOC industry. It is arguably one of the most innovative as well, having been designing and redesigning their platform to help learners learn and engage better. Some of the early innovations is to create a group (which since has been discontinued, but nevertheless gave birth to communities such as IDCourserians that are still very much alive and active) and outsourcing the translation of its subtitles. In 2013 Coursera partnered with 9 institutions around the world to produce subtitles in various languages (Coursera partnering, 2013). In addition to this, it also established a Global Translator Community (GTS) using Transifex platform to translate courses en masse to various languages. It was a novel attempt among the MOOC providers. There were significant backtracks due to the inability of Transifex to cope with the sudden huge influx of translators and Coursera’s overwhelmed capacity to process language coordinators in time, but GTS seems to survive and has managed to produce more subtitles in more languages.

In August 2015, on top of its Specializations track, Coursera launched Global Skills Initiative (Why employers, 2015) with this unique feature:

Through the Global Skills Initiative, universities and industry leading companies work together to create a Specialization. After identifying a high demand content area, companies are paired with a Coursera partner university that is responsible for the academic expertise, creation of course materials, and the overall learner experience for the new Specialization. Companies contribute funding for production costs in addition to applied projects, guest lectures, case studies, and other materials that incorporate industry expertise into the course content.

Coursera doesn’t advertise itself, but it seems to be very creative in making its outreach globally and make its presence effective.

2.3.4 Other MOOC Companies

There are two other major MOOC companies as has been identified, namely edX and Udacity. Their features have been outlined in Table 2.3. Udacity has a distinct market in technical fields while Coursera and edX both offer broad range of courses, although they differ on the platform and the rigour of the courses. Despite of the presence of dozens other MOOC companies, this dissertation will not focus on many more MOOC apart from these two who has distinctly spearheaded and gave shape to the creation of the MOOC industry.

2.3.5 Venture Capitalists

Companies in an industry in the making would require many uncertain years until they will be profitable (cf. Moran, 2015). There hasn’t been a historical record for this. Within this situation it is essential to have the right cluster (Porter, 1998) that allows for this new industry and companies to have enough time to grow and be profitable. Koller once deliberated the future of the Coursera, insinuating that the future may not hold an acquisition, but an IPO is probably on the line (Anders, 2013).

Coursera and edX has respectively received 6 and 4 rounds of funding in the past three years (see Table 2.1). The figures inform us they have the trust of the venture capitalists and they have enough leg room to keep on innovating and growing. The venture capitalists seem to have the patience and determination to see it happen.

2.4 Key Factors for Competing in the MOOC Industry

To wrap up our discussion on the MOOC industry, three factors seem to have emerged to compete in the MOOC industry. The first is IT expertise, which is strong on all the major companies we have observed. The second is integration of pedagogical research which is an experiential selling point offered especially by Coursera but is not lost on the other major players. The third is the presence of a conducive cluster that allows the industry to grow; this involve access to knowledge and various kinds of expertise and access to capital. Ultimately it is the cluster that allows all the companies to see the bright sunlight long enough until they will be able to make profit.


With the MOOC industry elaborated, we will now take focus our attention to Coursera, the company with the widest reach among the major players in the industry.



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