History of Coursera

Chapter 3 Coursera’s Internal Conditions

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

This chapter zooms into Coursera: the journey it’s been through, the way it has pushed beyond the frontiers of learning technology and shaped an emerging industry along the way, and its internal working, namely how it structures its value chain to become what it is now.

3.1 An Overview of Coursera’s History

3.1.1 The Advent of Coursera

Coursera was started by Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller in 2012. Koller had been enthusiastic about flipped classroom, while Ng was inspired by his colleague Sebastian Thrun’s decision to put the latter’s online-only artificial intelligence (AI) class of Fall 2011 open not only to Stanford students but for anyone to access – for free. Ng followed Thrun’s steps and put his soon-to-start course free to the world to access, thinking that it may be useful for people in California who are unemployed or underemployed. In total, three Stanford professors put their courses for public and for free that term. Johnston (2012) wrote of the outcomes:

Within days of going online with little fanfare, the three free courses attracted 350,000 registrants from 190 countries—mostly computer and software industry professionals looking to sharpen their skills. “To put that in context,” Ng says, “in order to reach a comparably sized audience on campus I would have to teach my normal Stanford course for 250 years.”

Hence the impetus was released. Ng and Koller launched Coursera in April 2012 as “an independent and privately owned company” (Casadesus-Masanell & Kim, 2015). In June 2012 Koller mentioned that Coursera had partners with 4 universities offering 43 courses (Koller, 2012). It quickly grew with subsequent partnership announcements. On 17 July 2012, Coursera announced 12 new university partners, in total offering more than 100 courses (blog.coursera.org/post/27394575240); on 19 September 2012, 17 more university partners were announced, “[expanding] the course offerings even further, adding new classes in the fields of music, medicine, and humanities (among other disciplines)” (blog.coursera.org/post/31851176174). We see that from the beginning Coursera had already had a drive to provide a broad offering of courses and it worked aggressively to win early partnerships with many universities – most are widely known globally.

3.1.2 Focus on Learners and Building Communities

Coursera deliberately worked from the learners’ end as well. Thus far Coursera has never advertised itself. Instead, it has worked to build communities of learners both virtual and physical. The media it has championed are Facebook and Meetup.com. Through the Meetup.com initiative Coursera tried to encourage its learners (it coined the term “Courserians” to refer to them) to meet physically, exploiting the “inherently social” nature of learning. It sponsored the use of Meetup.com platform so organisers anywhere in the world didn’t have to pay for organising their own Meetup.com group. This experiment, dubbed “Meetup Everywhere”, was discontinued on 1 December 2014.

3.1.3 Translations

Coursera also tried to encourage organisations and communities all around the world to start physical learning communities it called “Coursera Learning Hubs” in 2013 with “U.S. Department of State as a major Learning Hubs partner” alongside several other partners “to initially more than 30 Embassies, American Spaces, campuses, and other physical locations worldwide” (blog.coursera.org/post/65596539008).

In trying to reach out to more audience globally Coursera piloted translation collaboration with partners in Russia (Digital October), Turkey (Koç University), and China (Yeeyan & Guokr) – to mention some of the leading translation partners. An interesting development of Coursera’s initiative to reach more audience took place when Coursera partnered with Transifex, a collaborative translation platform, to outsource the translation of its subtitles en masse to individuals from all around the world (see the announcements on these blog posts: blog.coursera.org/post/50452652317 and blog.coursera.org/post/84088014661). This was (and still is) an unprecedented move. For quality control, Coursera tried to find language coordinators for each language. There was a surge of interest worldwide and as a result which unfortunately was offset by Transifex’s inability to cope with the surge, causing numerous technical issues along the way, and Coursera’s inability to process the language coordinators in a timely manner. Almost two years later, in November 2015, Coursera was still processing applications for language coordinators.

3.1.4 Back Office Improvements

Meanwhile back at office Coursera has continuously worked on improving the way Courserians experience learning. It has revamped its website several times; added social features in the course pages; developed apps for Android’s Google Play, Kindle Fire, and Apple’s App Store; also enriched the way assessments are done. Various kinds of assessments now include in-video formative assessment, multiple choice, short answers, essays, and projects. Courserians can work on certain quizzes several times with questions that rotate with equal level difficulty. Some assignments are scored using peer-graded assessments (for further discussions on this, please refer to degreeoffreedom.org/between-two-worlds-moocs-and-assessment/ and degreeoffreedom.org/moocs-and-peer-grading-1/). This array of improvements and innovations give us an idea of the workings behind a MOOC.

3.1.5 Various Learning Experience and Credentials

The more visible side of a MOOC is how courses are offered. Coursera has been innovating in tailoring their courses. Everyone can start with a totally free course. In the earlier years most (if not all courses) were synchronous: they had start and end dates. In recent months Coursera had been offering increasing number of asynchronous courses, i.e. they are self-paced courses (also called on-demand) that Courserians can study anytime they want. For some courses Courserians will be offered to enrol to Signature Track that cost $30-100. Three features of a Signature Track course are: identity verification, verified certificate, and sharable course records (blog.coursera.org/post/40080531667). Within the first eight months Coursera announced it had made its first $1 million in revenue from the Signature Track (coursera.tumblr.com/post/61047298750/a-milestone-for-signature-track-certificates-for).

On 31 July 2015 Coursera announced that it would streamline the certificates it would publish, hence changing the name of “Verified Certificate” to “Course Certificate” effective 3 August 2015, while previously it had introduced the verification technology behind the Signature Track to have wider coverage, stating in their blog, “we’ve started to offer identity verification in many courses for free, realizing all learners and partners should have the expectation of academic integrity in our courses” (blog.coursera.org/post/125545067462).

A step further from Signature Tracks, in January 2014 Coursera started to phase out a packaging labelled “Specializations” that went on full steam in early 2016. A Courserian enrols in a Specialization by enrolling in a series of pre-determined MOOCs, all on Signature Track, plus one capstone project; the latter also offered as a fee-paying MOOC. Upon the completion of all courses and the capstone project, a Specialization certificate is granted to the Courserian (blog.coursera.org/post/73994272513 and blog.coursera.org/post/75836041339). Courses in a Specialization may be offered by a single partner or several partners (for an example of “Trans-Institution Specialization”, see blog.coursera.org/post/74257050344). One high profile example of this Specialization is probably Wharton’s Foundation Series, a series of four courses based on Wharton’s matriculation courses for its MBA students (blog.coursera.org/post/60889088289) with a Capstone Project from Snapdeal and Shazam (blog.coursera.org/post/110731515182).

The latest initiative Coursera has been offering to bundle value for learners is Global Skills Initiative that was announced on 4 August 2015 (blog.coursera.org/post/125852145842). Through this initiative Coursera play the role of a matchmaker between “top companies and universities” in creating Specialization programmes. Coursera Blog described how it would work:

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.

In 2016 Coursera will start offering its highest credential: a full degree, i.e. an iMBA in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The “curriculum will be freely available for everyone”, while enrolling for the degree will cost $20,000 (Koller, 2015).

It is very interesting indeed to see how Coursera has been working hard to create real-world advantage to Courserians in so many ways, both in providing learning materials and in delivering real-world opportunities. In May 2013 Coursera had developed collaborations with publishers “Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press SAGE, and Wiley” to make otherwise expensive resources to be available freely to Courserians (blog.coursera.org/post/49930827107). This is apart from some course-specific collaborations with publishers (e.g. Wharton’s Social Entrepreneurship and Wesleyan’s Social Psychology) that had also allowed Courserians to gain access to textbooks and other resources either for free or on a steeply discount basis.

3.1.6 Impacts

With regards to impact, Coursera has been promoting its impact on individuals and communities on its blog. Some highlighted beneficiaries include a 17-year-old with severe autism who completed 6 courses (blog.coursera.org/post/51976868541), people who successfully changed career track, refugees whose lives have been transformed by learning Coursera’s MOOCs, and a local community that was transformed when people started using Coursera to gain more skills and get better jobs (coursera.tumblr.com/post/45931984951/my-coursera-experience-empowering-local). Philanthropy organisations Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (blog.coursera.org/post/35759846893/gates-to-fund-gateway-moocs) and Carlos Slim Foundation (http://coursera.tumblr.com/post/94839684442/carlos-slim-foundation-features-coursera-on-new) have made significant contributions to develop Coursera to deliver more benefits to society.

Coursera has clearly made its dent in USA by the changes it has effected in the cases of Minnesota policy on HEI (blog.coursera.org/post/34139356940/changes-to-the-tos-for-minnesota-students), benefits for veterans announced by Michelle Obama which was later extended to their spouses as well (blog.coursera.org/post/102287882992/michelle-obama-announces-free-coursera-credentials), and President Barack Obama’s support for employment of Coursera’s 2-year Verified Certificates for teachers’ professional development (blog.coursera.org/post/103050170952/president-obama-supports-free-two-year-coursera).

In September 2015 Coursera published a research conducted with University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington (Chen, 2015; Coursera study, 2015) concluding that the problems Coursera had aimed to tackle are being tackled, MOOCs are really changing education landscape globally, with “disadvantaged learners … more likely to report tangible benefits” (Chen, 2015).

Coursera has also reported that its MOOCs have benefited not only the learners but also the professors (blog.coursera.org/post/116650738832). Some featured professors report how MOOC has afforded them and their researches considerably greater visibility, bringing in fresh blood into the research, and even providing resources they otherwise wouldn’t otherwise know.

3.2 Coursera and Its Pivotal Role in the MOOC Industry

One factor that makes analysing these early years of MOOC interesting is the fact that Coursera, edX, and Udacity – MOOC’s big three – each pursues a unique strategy. Among these three, Coursera is still the biggest, offering 35.58% of courses and “accounted for slightly less than half of all MOOC students” (Shah, 2015). In MOOCs in 20015 report, 5 out of 10 most popular courses, including the top 2, are offered on Coursera.

What we have seen from Coursera’s four-year journey is that it went big since the earliest days. Coursera developed a wide base of content providers and course subjects. It was not visibly in a hurry to monetise – a completely valid course as exemplified by Udacity in its famous pivot (Chafkin, 2013). Coursera also proactively tried to build both virtual and physical communities of learners globally by collaborating with non-content provider partners such as JetBlue in Canada (blog.coursera.org/post/103477375027), NetEase in China (blog.coursera.org/post/63406806112/a-new-partnership-to-bring-coursera-to-the), and Turkcell in Turkey (blog.coursera.org/post/87629164467/coursera-works-with-turkeys-largest-mobile) to bring its courses closer and more accessible to learners globally, wherever they are, whatever language they speak.

Another group of non-content provider partners Coursera collaborated with is the translators. Coursera championed an innovative way to outsource the translation of its courses’ subtitles to various organisations around the world through institutional collaborations as well as to myriads of individuals through Transifex platform.

Yet another group of non-content providers with whom Coursera partner is the publishers. Coursera may not be unique in this, nevertheless it is probably the most aggressive in its reach, providing free and steeply discounted contents from major textbook publishers for numerous courses.

In 2016 Coursera will start offering a full degree with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an iMBA. In this case, Coursera is not the first and for reasons that will soon be clear we will sidetrack here. Three years ago Udacity started collaborating with Georgia Institute of Technology (henceforth, Georgia Tech), to offer Master of Computer Science – one of top 5 programme in the US (Georgia Tech, 2013) – and its first cohort already graduated in December 2015 (Shah, 23 December 2015). The students paid a mere $27,000 per year (Georgia Tech, 2013), which is a fraction of what they would otherwise pay for attending Georgia Tech’s Master’s degree programme. What is also interesting is the programme didn’t cost both Udacity and Georgia Tech anything because all cost was shouldered by AT&T. Chafkin (2013) put it this way:

AT&T … put up $2 million in seed capital in the hope of getting access to a new pool of well-trained engineers. “There’s a recruiting angle for us, but there’s also a training angle,” says Scott Smith, an SVP of human resources at the telco. … AT&T plans to send a large group of its employees through the program and is in talks with Udacity to sponsor additional courses as well. “That’s the great thing about this model,” Smith says. “Sebastian is reaching out to us and saying, ‘Help us build this—and, oh, by the way, the payoff is you get instruction for your employees.’” Says [George Zachary, an investor at Udacity], “The Georgia Tech deal isn’t really a Georgia Tech deal. It’s an AT&T deal.”

The tripartite model between Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T is being tried out by Coursera as well through its Global Skills Initiative programme upon which Coursera plays a matchmaker role between top universities who build and delivers courses with leading companies that funds the projects; also with some Specialization tracks where top companies provide real-life projects for the Capstone projects, ensuring that Courserians who earn their Specialization certificate have been proven as capable of solving real-life problems at leading companies in respective industries – ultimately increasing the value and prestige of the certificates published.

The year 2015 is said to be the year “MOOCs find their business models” (Shah, 28 December 2015): “One of the big trends last year was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees, Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.” As shown in previous section, Coursera has carefully developed this model step by step from introducing Signature Track, then moving on to Specialization, adjusting the conditions for certificate granting, enrich the Capstone project with contributions from leading companies, until the last launches of Global Skills Initiative and the iMBA with U. Illinois.

The distinct Coursera style is in its broad course base and far outreach approach, also its patience initiative to sustain communities of learners globally. In doing so, its dominating existing number of students and course offers testify that is has done a good job in spearheading the popularity of MOOC and opening access to MOOC into more hands.

3.3 Value Chain Analysis and Value Proposition Design

This section will now analyse what has enabled Coursera to achieve what it has achieved. Two analyses will be provided using two different frameworks: Porter’s value chain analysis and Osterwalder & Pigneur’s value proposition design. Porter’s value chain analysis will help us understand how Coursera tailors its resources to deliver its services and enable it to “establish and maintain a distinctive strategic positioning” (Porter, 2001).

We have identified previously that Coursera has multiple customers and its industrial chain (Image 2.2) is somewhat unconventional. To assist in analysing this emerging industry then, Osterwalder & Pigneur’s framework of value proposition design (2014) will be employed since theirs is a work born in much more recent time and it includes various contemporary emerging companies and business models utilising industrial chains that has been made possible by omnipresent access to the Internet and mobile gadgets in the era of Web 2.0 such as Airbnb and Uber whose business model include multi-front facing platforms serving at least two groups of customers, matchmaking vacant space providers (accommodation in the case of Airbnb and transportation in the case of Uber) and those who are willing to pay for them. In the following chapter it will be followed up by also employing Osterwalder and Pigneur’s broad framework of business model generation (2010).

3.3.1 Value Chain Analysis


3.3.2 Value Proposition Design


3.4 Concluding Remarks on Coursera’s Core Competency




This is a tentative list, based on my latest overall work, not only the chapter posted above. Some of the sources below may not be quoted in the above chapter.

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Osterwalder, A. & Pigneur, Y. (2010). Business model generation: A handbook for visionaries, game changes, and challengers. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Osterwalder, A. & Pigneur, Y. (2014). Value proposition design: How to create products and services customers want. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

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