Online education startup Coursera may have finally found a way to give students an education more akin to a college degree--and in the process, put itself on sounder financial footing.
Coursera, the Mountain View, California-based provider of free, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, is launching a new feature called Specializations, the MOOC equivalent of majors. Rather than taking one isolated course for free, students can now select a sequence of courses, which they take in order, for a fee, albeit, a small one. Then, if they pass, students receive a certificate of completion.
"We heard from many students that they wanted help sequencing together courses in order to form more substantive programs of study than can be represented by a single course. On the flip side, we also heard significant interest from our university partners in offering course sequences," Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng told me by email. "After discussions with our partners and several student surveys, we decided to proceed with this program, which we believe is the next stage in the development of MOOCs."
It may sound like a small development, but I don't think it is. The path Coursera has taken since its inception just two years ago looks a lot like what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation," which he defines as a new technology that starts off both cheaper and less good than the established competitor. As the new technology gets better and better, remaining cheaper than the incumbent, it slowly starts to capture the mainstream market, eventually crushing the competition.
Specializations solve a major pain point for students, namely, that it's tough to master a subject by taking a random course in that subject. And if a student does master the subject, it's tough to prove it to a potential employer without a degree. The initial Specializations range from How to Program in Python to Key Trends in Global Affairs. Students will also get to showcase what they've learned with a so-called "capstone" project, another attempt by Coursera to make the knowledge students have acquired appear more tangible to employers.
Meanwhile, Specializations solve an equally big pain point for Coursera, namely that revenue's hard to come by when you're giving a premium product away for free. This way, students will sign up to get their identities verified, a service for which Coursera charges for each class, meaning Specializations will run students about $200 to $500. It's substantially cheaper than a degree from a traditional university, and for those who can't afford it, true to its mission, Coursera is offering students financial aid.
Coursera and other MOOC providers have been widely critiqued for their low completion rates and the caliber of the education they offer. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, has even announced his company's pivot away from the "massively open" model of online education. And yet, Coursera's Specializations feature is a sign that it may not yet be time to write MOOCs off completely, especially as a continued education alternative.
Coursera still has much to prove before it can be declared a true disruptive innovator, in Christensen's definition, but the company's latest move is a promising step in the right direction.