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Refactoring Coursera

There’s really four elements companies like Coursera have brought to the table.

  • Massive Classes: This was the original “intellectual” pitch. Massive data was going to build better product. Massive classes were going to provide new ways of formative assessment via peer assessment, and new modes of support via massive forums. The idea here is a single large cohort has efficiencies of scale that outweigh the drawbacks of centralization.
  • Elite Content: This was the press story. The giants of education, who had been on the sidelines, were now entering into the online market. Members of the national press, who often graduate from elite schools, tended to ignore that the best research schools do not necessarily provide the best education, but more on that in a minute.
  • A Technological Framework: The LMS of Coursera is streamlined to give a certain type of educational experience. Most of the technology tends to focus on two aspects – peer assessment frameworks, and in-video questions.
  • Open Access: Students, in case you haven’t heard, are able to take these courses for free.

With today’s announcement, it’s interesting to recalculate where we are. Coursera’s business model, after a year and change of them talking about massive cohorts, is now to sell a combination of technology platform and content. They are, in fact, an educational publisher. How does that affect things?

  • Massive Classes: Massive turns out not to matter, at least in any revolutionary way. Publishers like Pearson have been using online data to make widely distributed courses better for well over a decade, so the iterative quality piece turns out not to be a differentiator in publishing. And in small local classes what peer assessment there is is likely to come from the local cohort, not the global one. With those advantages removed, the tendency will be towards decentralized use of “copies” of courses instead of massive events.
  • Elite Content: The “elite” content pitch was a good opener, because it’s easier for someone at a state school to use “elite” content than a rival university’s content. (We really need to get over that). The shift in approach changes things. Most obviously, this play undermines the image of Coursera as a purveyor of elite brands. Less obviously, as faculty modify even the provided “elite” courses over time, the likelihood is that they are going to want to mix and match material, which means the “brand” of the course becomes much less pertinent. A course taught at SUNY Buffalo is going to become increasingly a SUNY Buffalo course, no matter what the original material. Or a SUNY system course. Branding in such a mashup becomes problematic.
  • Technological Framework: The glory of the Coursera framework was that it was streamlined to teach a certain way, unlike LMS’s which provide for a wide range of structures. But as Coursera moves from a direct-to-consumer play to a services play that streamlining becomes a bit of a curse. Customers like to customize. Add to this the fact that a Coursera + LMS play splits our view of learning data at a time when we are trying to get a unified view of it.
  • Open Access: The open access in a direct-to-consumer play is “ability to take the course”. But the concept of open in institutional reuse involves additional types of open: remixing, redistributing, access to data, and ability to hack multiple systems together. It looks like Coursera is promising some of that – if only to institutions that are its customers (that is to say, not really “open”, but less cookie cutter). But it’s hard to see how that’s going to be a key advantage of working with Coursera, when others have been working at cracking the reuse nut for years. Canvas, Blackboard, and others have been working on the sharable courses issue for quite some time now. And Open Educational Resources (OER) projects like Lumen Learning’s Open Course Frameworks encode years of thinking about what the true barriers to reuse are.

In short: massive doesn’t matter, the elite lure will fade under remix and collaboration, publishers have better content and more mature production processes, LMS’s do platforms better, and Open Educational Resources provide the more useful kind of open.

That said, can they do it? Can they survive? I think it’s largely a momentum play at this point. They’ve made a name on things that cease to matter much in their new business model, but they’ve managed to leverage the early hype and get a good number of systems to make the sort of step they need to make towards collaboration.

That’s nothing to scoff at. But now that they are explicitly competing with publishers, Open Educational Resources, and learning management systems it’s hard to believe these entities won’t wage the sort of counterwar they are well-equipped to wage. I can’t see Coursera surviving that without some immediate partnerships to backfill some of its deficiencies. Or, perhaps as likely, Coursera ends up being bought by some entity looking to backfill its own gaps (SNHU’s President suggests Pearson or similar). Either way, it’s probably for the good: the fake discussion we’ve been having about Coursera’s blue-sky “disruptive” business model and its fit with education can now move to a real discussion about the impact of Coursera’s actual business model, including its pros and cons against other potential models.

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