Online educational marketplaces are on the rise, with tools like Udemy and Khan Academy allowing people of all ages to become an expert in any topic. New company Coursera is targeting higher education by offering university-level courses from top institutions to students all over the world, all for free. The company launches today with $16 million in Series A funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and New Enterprise Associates, and is announcing partnerships with four schools: Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.
The company was started by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, who developed the technology in order to offer Stanford classes online. Now that they’ve expanded it beyond just Stanford, Coursera will offer over 30 courses from its partner schools across a variety of disciplines, including computer science, sociology, medicine, and math. There’s no limit to the number of students that can enroll in a course on Coursera, and during their beta period almost one million students enrolled in the seven online classes offered. Koller said the goal of Coursera is to make top-tier education available to anyone, anywhere. “The vision of our company is that we are partnering with the top universities in the country and ultimately in the world to empower them to post their courses online and make them reach hundreds of thousands of students around the world who do not have access to the kind of quality education that these institutions provide to their own students,” Koller said in an interview.
Unlike other e-learning tools, only courses vetted by Coursera from partner schools are posted on the site. Students register for a specific course on Coursera’s website, all of which are approved by the educational institution that offers it. Classes typically last for five to ten weeks, and during that time students commit to watching the lectures, and completing interactive quizzes and assignments, which are auto-graded or graded by peers. Upon completion, the student receives a statement of accomplishment, a letter from the professor, and a score, but the course doesn’t count for any actual credit with that specific institution. The site also features a Q&A forum where students can ask questions about the course material and get answers from fellow students. Ng said the median response time on the forum is 22 minutes, and since there are students from diverse time zones it’s easier to get a reply.
The site offers courses to students for free, which brings up the question of why full-time students should pay for classes the schools are giving away for free online. Aside from the fact that many modern students pay for degrees, and not necessarily the education that comes with them, Koller said most of these schools were planning to make course content available online anyway. Putting lectures online allows full-time students to engage in what she calls the “split classroom” or “hybrid learning” model – part of the instruction is moved online, so in-class time is spent on case studies and interactive learning. “I think the universities realize that the real value is not in the standard lectures that are given in a big auditorium with 150 people listening. Content is something that is already reasonably widely available in places like iTunes U and YouTube EDU,” Koller said. “The true value proposition for universities is in the social interaction and the intellectual engagement that happens as part of that institution.”
In terms of expanding its partnerships, Coursera has no plans to open up the platform to any school that wants to participate, rather they will add select institutions and are currently in discussions with several “top universities.” In terms of a business model, Koller said they will offer all courses for free, and will look to monetize after building out the platform. “We think that because the site is changing the lives of millions of people we will find a way to bring in enough revenue to make it sustainable,” she said.
Koller and Ng said they’re targeting Coursera at high school students looking to get a glimpse at post-secondary education, current college students who don’t have access to a specific topic, or graduates interested in continuing their education, but say that really anyone interested in lifelong learning could make use of the site. By keeping the course quality high and the courses free, Coursera will likely continue to increase its reach with students around the world. But with platforms like iTunes U for educators and Udemy for those outside of the education system, there will be no shortage of competitors trying to attract students and educators to their own platforms. And with no revenue model in sight, the company’s biggest challenge might be how to monetize a platform that promises to make its most valuable content free to users.