Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera, one of the world’s biggest edtech platforms, thinks the hybrid learning model is here to stay. The pandemic, ironically, was boom time for edtech platforms across the globe, with their revenue and valuations surging by over 50-60%. As the world went into a lockdown, universities too went online to offer full-fledged under-graduate and masters programmes. In fact, in the past two years, Maggioncalda himself “finished a course in history from the University of Amsterdam and a machine learning programme from Stanford.” The focus of online learning platforms, says Maggioncalda, should be to offer courses that lead to job creation. Interview by Ajita Shashidhar.

This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.

Digital lessons

There is a surge in people embracing online learning across the globe. Has the edtech industry evolved to offer newer opportunities to consumers?

I don’t think the world will be the same ever. Just as every employee in an office would be given the option to work remotely, online learning is also here to stay. Every student will learn both in the classroom as well as online. Universities will serve students both online and offline. And, that’s the kind of opportunity platforms such as Coursera have.

On a platform your job is to create technology so that others can create value. Universities across the globe publish courses, and super-smart people use our platform to create high-quality courses. It goes all the way from the hands-on ones to fully accredited bachelors and master degrees. The number of universities signing up with platforms such as ours are going up by the day . In India for instance, we just had two university partners prior to the pandemic —India School of Business and IIM Kolkata. In 2021, 10 university partners signed up with us —IIT Mumbai, IIT Guwahati, IIT Roorkee, IIM Kozhikode, Ashoka University and OP Jindal Global University to name a few. They are helping us create courses, certificates and degrees. We had more learners join us from India than any other part of the world during the pandemic. It’s gone up 400% year on year. Out of the 15 million learners in India, 4.3 million came onboard in 2021 .

In 2019, our revenue was $184 million (a 30% growth over the previous year), in 2020, we grew 59% to $293 million and in 2021 we grew 41% to $450 million. We hope to touch $540 million in 2022.

The Economic Impact

So, are online universities here to stay?

Universities will serve students both online and offline. Similarly, working professionals have families, they can’t afford to move their families, but they need to learn. Universities are realising that their relationship with students shouldn’t be a four-year transaction, it should be lifelong. If someone goes to a university and graduates at 24, the university should be poised to offer a lifelong partnership. Even when they are working in a professional organisation, they still come back to that university to update their skills by enrolling in other programmes.

Does a professional doing a short programme on machine learning or artificial intelligence on Coursera to add to my existing skill-sets, it does make sense. However, will a learner really benefit through an online undergraduate or masters programme? Can he/she get a job?

There is more opportunity to learn, get good jobs, be in powerful positions and provide for your family and community than ever before. A young person today has unlimited access to education no matter where you live or how old you are. This was not true five years ago.

It’s important to make sure that as platform owners we are able to turn learning opportunity into economic opportunity. Today, everyone has access to learning, but if you live in a community where there are no jobs, you can learn all sorts of things from Stanford, but it will be of no use. What the pandemic has done is that it has enabled 1.6 billion people to learn online. On the other hand, companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook are hiring remote workers who don’t necessarily live next to an office. So, you can learn whatever you want to and live wherever you want to. If you have knowledge and skill that you can get online, you will have access to jobs that your parents never had access to.

How are you helping to create that economic plus learning opportunity?

It’s not just the kind of content, but also the credentials which matter. That’s the reason we spend a lot of time with top universities and businesses as we know their brands signal quality and have more attractive credentials. We go for high-quality content and credentials and try to find them in job-relevant domains such as business, technology and data. In terms of access to learning we make sure everything runs on the desktop. On mobile, every learner can download the courses and watch them offline even if they don’t have an Internet connection . We have designed our courses to a V-Pat standard, which is an accessibility standard for people who can’t hear or see well.

We have been focusing on entry level professional certificates. We started with Google IT certificate in 2018. The world is changing and is displacing a lot of jobs, but also creating a lot of them. Some of the jobs being created are available to people even if they don’t have a college degree or a background in that particular field. One example is IT support. It turns out you can do IT support even without a college degree or prior experience. You can learn the skills online. Google launched the four-course series Google IT Support Professional Certificate in 2018. Around 700,000 people have enrolled till date. Out of that number, 60% don’t have a college degree, while 50% come from under-represented groups. We also work with Google to line up companies that are looking to hire IT support people, and we connect graduates with these companies. We have around 150 companies on board. We can’t promise a job or an interview, but if you pursue the course, we can tell you that you have the skills the companies are looking for.

We have also realised for some people a professional certificate will be an honorarium to a college degree. Some of our university partners (University of London, North Eastern University, University of North Texas) have said they will award academic credit towards college degrees for anyone who has completed the certificate course. We call these ‘Degree Pathways’. We think this will flip things around and many young people will start with a professional certificate, get a job and while they are working, get a degree online. You don’t have to take out a bunch of loans or have your parents pay out their life savings. It also opens up more career opportunities.

We also offer IBM Data Science Personal Certificate, IBM Data Analyst Personal Certificate, Google Data Analytics, Facebook Marketing Analyst Personal Certificate, and Salesforce Development Representative Personal Certificate. We have been working with the American Council of Education to do credit recognition for entry level certificates. We are doing the same in India too .

How many people would have got jobs through these certificate programmes?

We do a learner impact study after they finish these courses, and over 80% said it has had a positive impact on their career. Over 2.2 million people have enrolled into these certificate programmes.

Skill Development

How can online learning platforms help in skill development in a India where a significant portion of the population lives in rural areas?

During Covid-19 we started working with a number of state governments. We partnered with Tamil Nadu Skill Development Corporation, Telangana Academy For Skill and Knowledge and Uttar Pradesh Skill Development Mission. In India, it’s not just skilling rural India. Many universities in India can’t attract the best professors who can teach advanced courses, but with Coursera On Campus they can license courses from other universities. They can integrate those courses into their curriculum. LNCT in Bhopal, for instance, uses Coursera On Campus.

Edtech companies in India have been on an acquisition spree. What are your merger & acquisition (M&A) plans?

We believe education is a vast challenge and opportunity. There is an incredible amount of innovation and capital flowing into creating edtech companies. I respect entrepreneurs who are finding new ways to solve problems. Not every good idea is going to come from Coursera, so I am certain that M&A would be a part of how we put together the best possible learnings for students around the world. We went public and raised a lot of money. We have $120 million on the balance sheet, we are almost cash flow breakeven. So, I think that M&A would be a part of our future. We are actively looking at different opportunities globally as well as in India.

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