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15 July 2013

Coursera races ahead

In light of Coursera's $43m series B last week, news editor Gregg Bayes-Brown examines why the online course platform is rushing to grab the global student market.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

Often dubbed a “hype train” by some in the academic community, the higher education buzzword of the moment, the ‘MOOC’ (massive open online course), is shaping up to be less a linear train track of internet-led disruption derailing traditional campus-based learning, and is evermore resembling a high-octane motor race to the finish.

Leading the pack with its recent close of a $43m series B round is Stanford startup Coursera. Tearing off from the starting line in April last year with $22m of venture backing in the tank, the MOOC platform has quickly overtaken its rivals, fellow Stanford startup Udacity and MIT/Harvard not-for-profit collaboration edX, to attract over 4 million users and 70 university partners in just over a year.

With the additional backing, Coursera has no intention of slowing down. The latest round will be used to facilitate its global expansion, with multi-lingual courses, marketing, mobile device support and greater corporate infrastructure being obvious bets on where the money will be going.

Why the rush for the global market, though? Many deriders of the MOOC movement are calling for eager vice-chancellors and presidents to slow down on their uptakes of online courses, with some questioning the validity of the courses and others fearful of the cost higher education will pay to provide them.

Indeed, Udacity’s founder and the man behind Google Glass, Sebastian Thrun, has predicted that by 2050, only 10 universities will remain standing. While this may seem like somewhat of an exaggeration, the threat posed by the MOOC, should it turn out to be the MP3 of higher education, should be a genuine concern for universities, especially those far down the rungs on the global rankings.

As costs continue to mount in higher education, online courses will undoubtedly appeal to cash-strapped students looking to dodge a lifetime of debt. Furthermore, as governments continue to scrabble for money in the on-going financial stalemate, other forms of income may dry up, leading to some universities running out of gas.

Coursera and its peers can see this on the horizon, but have obstacles of their own to manoeuvre around. Offering free online higher education may win bonus points from an ethical standpoint, but it won’t put money in Coursera’s pocket. What will is numbers. Revenue streams such as data, recruitment through MOOCs, and certification following a course will only be sustained by a significant user base. As with social networks such as Facebook, the game here is to offer the service users want and figure out how to monetise it afterwards.

The clue to success is even in the acronym, and to get ahead and stay there, the platforms need to live up to the ‘massive’ element of what they have to offer. Coursera is certainly doing this more than its peers. Udacity continues to linger around the 500,000 mark, while edX expects to break the one million unique user mark imminently on the back of several new additions to its institution line-up. But to win this race, Coursera not only needs US numbers, but students from around the world.

To this end, the platform looks like it will face little to no resistance from outside of the US as it rolls out its free online higher education courses around the globe. Udacity and edX may yet come from behind, but Europe’s MOOC efforts continue to flounder in non-existence, and other non-US providers will undoubtedly struggle in the face of Coursera’s Ivy League-injected engine should they attempt to outmuscle the Stanford startup on a global stage.

One potential newcomer is the UK’s proposed MOOC platform, FutureLearn. Announced last year, the platform is yet to materialise, but could potentially offer some foreign competition to Coursera. Led by The Open University, the provider has managed to attract a consortium of UK institutions, including some Russell Group universities and others such as the British Library, the British Council and the British Museum.

However, ominous by their absence are Cambridge and Oxford. With its Europe-leading tech cluster, it’s hard to imagine that Cambridge is simply out of the loop on MOOCs, yet it still isn’t in the race. The University has appeared pensive on the subject, but has recently started making positive noises on MOOCs. Whether this means siding with FutureLearn, Coursera, or just pulling a Cambridge and approaching MOOCs in its own fashion remains to be seen. Conversely, Oxford University has all but put out a web-based course called “how to sneer at online learning”, with frequent dismissals of the subject and Oxford’s pro-vice chancellor (education) Sally Mapstone recently describing the MOOC movement on the BBC’s Newsnight programme as a “lemming-like rush”.

Additionally, the timeframe the OU and its partners are working to much more resembles the slow-and-steady style of academia rather than the student-grabbing white knuckle ride Coursera is on. The UK announced its arrival late into the MOOC world, and so far, only Edinburgh with its Coursera partnership has shown any real evidence of embracing it. FutureLearn itself has been in hiding since its announcement in December, only popping its head up to announce new partners (or not popping its head up in the case of St Andrews quietly exiting the consortium) or for chief executive Simon Nelson to offer up some buzzword-laden sound bites on what it might or might not offer.

By comparison, all three US platforms were up and running in the same timeframe, with Coursera hitting one million users. From what GUV understands, FutureLearn is now in beta testing, with open beta arriving in the next couple of months and the platform officially launching “later this year”. While the OU maintains a strong tradition of distance and online learning, along with big moves towards mobile degree learning, whether or not this will be enough to win over students in the face of Coursera’s Stanford-sponsored monster truck remains to be seen.

Aside missing Oxbridge and any real indicators aside from wistful promises of what the British platform will offer, FutureLearn is also yet to clarify what sort of financial guns are backing it. For all anyone knows, the UK could turn up late in a Reliant Robin just as Coursera steams over the finishing line.

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