Is the Future of Education On-Demand and Subscription-Based?

Oh man — is it data time of day again?

“The patrons of higher ed are continuing to shift. We haven’t reorganized our conception of how universities are supposed to be governed to accommodate that change.”

Mitchell Stevens, professor of education at Stanford, exposes a grave pitfall of higher education at a conference on academic innovation.

We seem to be moving toward a hybrid of online and in-person classes, arranged to meet the varied needs of the student, with accreditation granted by different schools, and converging to create the perfectly employable candidate.

It may seem counterintuitive that large, well-respected institutions like Stanford and MIT are some of the biggest providers of MOOCs (massive online open courses), but a quick rifling through articles online turned up some interesting tidbits.

The benign assumption

The MOOCs and the universities are in it for altruistic reasons. They believe information is the salvation of the people, the liberator of injustice, and should be free and easily accessible.

The opportunist’s lens

Universities don’t have a choice. There is a very real possibility that if they don’t collaborate with MOOCs and custom-tailor their courses for an online audience, their most precious finite resource (the golden goose) of their business, passionate teachers, many of whom hold sway over large social media audiences, may leave the institution and develop their own commercial learning models with the support of VCs.

  • Reputation and career advancement. Picture this, you’re a mid-career, mid-tier university professor with some recognition, who has published some papers. None too groundbreaking, but none too shabby either. Enter MOOCs, a new frontier where you can develop a core loyal following, which will increase brand awareness of you. As a professional in the business of sharing what you know, there’s no better place to capture a large audience than on the Internet.
  • Data capture. We have all come to know and be apprehensive of our information economy. While these MOOCs may seem like beneficent and generous providers of free or heavily discounted education, they earn back their investments in the form of data on learning patterns across demographics across the world, all professions, motivations, and learning patterns — invaluable resource that they can choose to leverage as they see fit.
  • Profit. Taking a page from the play guide of free-to-play games, many MOOCs offer a free “demo version” in the hopes that the sight of juicy extra features just out of reach will entice some customers to sign up for the full version that grants credits for completed courses. A gold star is what we all want, after all. Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of demos.
  • Tech evangelism and prescreening. Another, arguably less heinous, but very crafty way these MOOCs capture value is that in setting up a playground for tech evangelists to drum up hype over certain rising industries (see IoT, AR, Big Data, Innovation in Entrepreneurship) they’ve cast themselves in the role of a powerful marketing middleman allowing corporate and education sector clients to funnel students toward their company or program and even to prescreen candidates from the student pool.

The Recipe to Coursera’s Success

And here lies the secret ingredient of Coursera. The company does not consider itself a competitor edging out traditional education at accredited universities. Rather, it’s more like a broker or a matchmaker, between student and course. And lately, with the integration of their human-centric “getting to know you” questions, between student and career and life enrichment.

In the early days of Coursera, while the company’s leadership was brainstorming monetization strategies, the role of matchmaker pairing qualified students looking for jobs and companies seeking qualified employees was one of their revenue stream ideas. Some of the others included:

  • Certification. By providing university-branded certificates that can be purchased by End Users in the form of a badge that users can put on their professional profiles vetted by a recognized badging system.
  • Secure assessments. By proctoring, at a fee, verified skills assessment at a certified testing location.
  • The Enterprise Model. Granting companies the platform to train employees using the courses provided on Coursera, allowing access to trainee performance records and augment university-provided courses on the platform with additional content of more relevance to the enterprise’s own hiring needs.

Vice Provost at the U of Washington, David Szatmary says that his university doesn’t want to make money, they just want to be able to fund the development of courses. MOOCs offer a great platform to earn some revenue while testing material on a sample batch of students in the service of developing a course.

Other players in the MOOC game

Startups such as Udacity, founded by former Stanford professor and instructor of the popular AI course with record-breaking enrolment numbers, offers “nanodegrees” to students who pay a $200/month subscription fee, even offering mentorship and a money-back guarantee for anyone who completes a nanodegree and doesn’t find a job within six months. EdX, the nonprofit joint-venture of Harvard and MIT, offers its own heady brew of 40 MicroMasters programs in trending topics from universities around the world. And Coursera, not to be outdone, has its own subject subcategories humbly labeled Specializations which can be stacked for a noncredit certificate.

Different but Same-Same

This, by fluke or by design, has created a bidding war among credentials in the contemporary education market. It’s not about the status rank among schools anymore, but the status order among credentials, says Mitchell Stevens, whose discerning words broke the ice at the beginning of this post.

Which blend of nanocredentials will make a candidate a shoo-in at their coveted interview? It’s the same story as the one of yesteryear, just played in on a different stage.

Que sera, Coursera?

In October of 2017, Coursera hit upon one of the loudest chords of the millennial harpy song―a subscription option. Most of its Specializations―the mini Master’s degrees they offer, can now be taken for $39 to $89 per month. Since the implementation of the subscription model, the number of users completing specializations has doubled, as learners rush to finish courses to save money.

Is the future of education decentralized, on-demand and subscription-based? Will we be able to retain the heritage and historicity of the institution of higher education without compromising the sacred sheep of convenience?