Coursera’s pitch for the online degree market

In a recent interview Tom Willerer, Coursera’s Chief Product Officer, outlined their offering to date. Willerer sees it as a 3-part product suite, that takes offers users single MOOCs, Specializations and latterly degrees depending on their requirements and allows Coursera three forms of monetisation (with value per user rising in the same order). Such an orthogonal description would be uninteresting — what makes it interesting is Willerer also sees it as a funnel. That firmly situates Coursera as an OPM provider (putting university courses online) like 2U.

Coursera (and other MOOC platforms) have some obvious strategic advantages against the likes of 2U. First and foremost is their userbase, drawn in by the broad range of MOOCs — these act as low-cost/free taster courses — in the ideal scenario a user takes a MOOC that is part of a Specialization that itself is part of a degree — that creates a clear path of progression and monetisation for Coursera.

This brings the second advantage, stackable — a major challenge for taking an online degree is usually the large upfront costs for the learner often in the tens of thousands — if the online degree is structured as stackable/pay as you go that should make it more accessible. edX’s MicroMasters is entirely built on this concept and early signs are very positive.

Finally, Coursera can recycle users from any MOOC onto more profitable pathways. 2U boast of two advantages; their subject algorithm which helps them select degrees likely to do well and secondly their ability to recycle users who fail at one degree say a Nursing degree at a top university towards a Nursing degree at a lower ranked university who may have lower criteria. That’s critical because the cost of acquisition is high. Coursera can mitigate this advantage in two ways, firstly they can take users who took a MOOC from one partner and push them towards a pathway to a degree by another. Secondly, by stacking they mitigate the risk of acceptance failure — people can demonstrate ability before applying.

A key part of this success if about how users are nudged onto these learning pathways — in the same interview Willerer talked of Learning Paths and the somewhat creepy sounding ‘Mass personalization’. The aim is to raise retention across the platform via course recommendations but more critically to nudge learners on a path that for coursera will lead to deeper monetisation. It will do this by taking in goals and skills and providing a way forward e.g. How to be a Data Scientist. LinkedIn have a similar goal but while LinkedIn Learning is more geared towards highly applied skill gaps e.g. HTML5, Coursera and MOOCs in general are talking about the more tertiary level education which underpins knowledge economy jobs — here