Silicon Valley's Hottest Innovation

Free for all, really

Here’s a start-up that is unleashing knowledge stored in top universities through its innovative online short-term courses

Dawid Bilski

“We hope to do for education what Google, Amazon and Facebook did with the internet,” says Andrew Ng. Though an audacious statement to make, the potential that Ng’s under two-year-old start-up holds in its ability to democratise education is no less audacious than his hope. If the internet redefined how we consume content, shop, travel and interact, Coursera is looking to alter the way we learn. That means not only reinvigorating a straitjacketed system in which traditional universities — both Ivy League and state-run — thrive, but also harness their knowledge trove for millions across the world.

Through companies such as Coursera, which offer massive open online courses, students can now pick and choose courses from prestigious universities for free. More importantly, these courses are now providing access to education when there was none. But what’s different about this Mountain View-based start-up, founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, is its approach: making online courses deliver what they seek to in an affordable and interesting manner, so as to inspire students to complete the course. “There is so much knowledge that is locked up in universities that is not accessible and Coursera is working with its partners to unlock that content,” says Ng.

Ng, 37, is an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. It was in 2007 when he started uploading videos of his Stanford courses and the attention that it generated that Ng realised the value for free content. Over the next four years he made several improvements — a better format, shorter duration videos, auto-grading technology — even as he toyed with the idea of launching online courses.

In 2011, Ng launched two online courses: one on machine learning and the other on databases. Almost 100,000 students signed up in no time. Passionate about education, Ng started talking to people about launching a company that would make content freely available. It was then that he met Daphne Koller, 45, the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the computer science department at Stanford. Her main research interest is in developing and using machine learning and probabilistic methods to model and analyse complex domains. Koller had interesting ideas on how to use free online content to change university education and together they decided to take the plunge in 2012 with Coursera.

Coursera’s initial partners included Stanford, Princeton and the universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, but in less than two years it has managed tie-ups with over 107 varsities across the globe. Universities sign up with Coursera to allow better discovery of their online courses and to understand the medium better. These courses augment the learning of enrolled students as well by helping them prepare for their on-campus classes better. Over 5 million students have signed up for the 500-odd courses being offered. While 35% of the students are from the US, the balance accounts for countries such as India, UK, Brazil, China and Canada.

The courses cover diverse subjects such as artificial intelligence, game theory, healthcare policy, poetry and art appreciation, though computer science and humanities are the most popular. More importantly, five of the courses have been approved for college grants by the American Council on Education. “While there is a cost for creating content, once it is created, the incremental cost to sign up new students is minimal, which is why this crazy idea of giving away top university courses for free is viable,” says Ng.

Coursera around the worldAround the world

Coursera uses Web 2.0 tools (allowing users to interact and collaborate with each other in a virtual community in contrast to passively viewing content) to make its courses interactive. Instant grading on quizzes and peer grading are preferred over the traditional hour-long lecture model. Each course includes 10-minute video lectures and weekly assignments on various topics. Coursera has a peer grading system for essays, where every student grades the papers of five others, enabling a feedback and interaction loop. 

Each course is roughly six weeks long. According to Ng, students are not only ready to pay more for a shorter course, they are also most likely to complete it. Traditional university courses tend to be close to 10-12 weeks long. Ng feels that since most students are working adults (73% of them fully employed), it is often very difficult for them to plan their routine around longer courses. Consequently, thanks to its course design, Coursera has had maximum impact on working adults rather than university students, with the average user age being around 30. “The shelf life of knowledge is decreasing since the world is changing so fast. Everybody needs a booster dose of knowledge and we are trying to bring back working adults into the educational system. We are enabling their access to education,” he adds. 

Currently, the only revenue source for the company is the verified certificate it offers every student on successful completion of a course. While the content remains free, Coursera charges students $30-100 for the certificate, which is given by the university and verified by Coursera. Since many companies take the certificate into account while hiring, Coursera has put in place several identity checks, including photo identification and keystroke biometrics, to ensure that the students who sign up for courses are the ones completing them. As of September 2013, the company raked in $1 million in revenue through this certification. Coursera shares the revenues with university partners to help them cover content costs. 

Learning curve

Coursera has managed to draw investor interest by raising $65 million from heavyweight venture capital firms such as KPCB, NEA, IFC and three specialised education-tech funds — GSV Capital, Laureate Education and Learn Capital. However, it faces tough competition from edX, a joint venture run by Harvard and MIT, and also Udacity, founded by fellow Stanford professor and Google fellow, Sebastian Thrun. Though all three offer courses for free, Coursera has the largest number of courses available.

Besides, it also offers career-matching services to help students land a job after the course. Scott Sandell, general partner, NEA, says, “Coursera has emerged as the most popular platform for online education because of the quality of its software, the number of world-class university partners that have joined its network and the number of students using its service. On each of these metrics, Coursera is well ahead
of Udacity.”

Even as Coursera explores other revenue streams, Ng insists that content will remain free. Coursera is planning to launch Learning Hubs in 30 locations across 24 different countries, including India, as part of a pilot programme. Students can take the course together and receive assistance from facilitators who volunteer at these hubs for free, with the cost of the infrastructure being covered by Coursera’s global partners. The infra cost could be borne by the US State Department and Coursera’s seven international partners. In some cases, the learning hubs could be the American embassies or campuses provided by its partners, such as Lady Shriram College, Bluebells School International and Learning Links Foundation in India.

There are students who sign up for courses but don’t show up for the lectures. Then there are others who submit their essay assignments and don’t just stop at the pop quizzes. Students belonging to the second group are probably more serious about the course and are more likely to complete it till the last assignment. Currently, the average completion rate stands at 45%, which is expected to improve as interaction between students increases. Also on the cards is a plan to offer course content on tablets and mobile devices through an app, which Ng feels will be helpful for students in emerging markets who have to commute for hours to work. The app would make it easier for them students to get course work done during their long commute.

Coursera today addresses many of the problems facing the education sector: the lack of capacity in both the emerging and developed markets and making education more affordable amid rising costs of university education in the West. The company is of the opinion that in emerging markets, students could skip the whole brick-and-mortar experience and move online with education, the way their generation skipped the landline and went straight for the mobile phone. For that, Coursera would have to get students to their first milestone, which is a college degree. Also, given the increasing college dropout rates in the US, four-year college courses could become irrelevant in future. 

Though it is still in the early stage of pedagogy, Coursera has significant room for improvement. “Open online courses version 2.0 will look nothing like they do today,” predicts Ng. “We are just writing the table of contents.” He believes future versions will be more social and interactive compared with earlier iterations. Thanks to a large student base and an online template for courses, Coursera is collecting a lot of data on the way people approach education. “We use the data to understand human learning and enhance the educational experience,” he says. Sandell agrees. “Coursera is faced with an almost overwhelming number of opportunities. Maintaining the right priorities and focus will be paramount to continued success.”

The immediate agenda for Coursera, then, is to make the courses more interactive, improve retention rates and scale up the number of courses offered from the current 500. But the overarching objective would be to make education accessible to millions around the world. “What most of us want from education is to get a job. We would like to see that happen for everyone who signs up with Coursera,” says Ng. And for free.