Coursera Pivots To Focus On Job Training

Back in 2012, we welcomed the dawn of the massive open online course (MOOC) and its promise to democratize learning with open arms.

Stories like that of Christos Porios, a 16-year-old living in Alexandroupoli, Greece, who discovered a Stanford computer science class on online platform Coursera and soon mastered machine learning, captured our collective imagination. The learning experience was new, but the brand-name institutions providing the content were familiar, with universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford leading the way.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the dynamics shaping online learning have changed dramatically. The typical student is not a teenage genius, but a mid-career working professional. And the brand names lending credibility are no longer vaunted educational institutions, but rather private companies on the lookout for new talent.

Many private companies are themselves taking the lead in designing and managing online courses—Microsoft, for example, is the top certificate-issuer on LinkedIn. But open learning platforms like Coursera also see an opportunity, and have been vying to carve out a share of this growing market for online continuing education. Today, Coursera announced that it is raising an additional $60 million in venture capital, on top of the $85 million it raised previously. The influx of cash will support “job-relevant learning opportunities,” according to the news release.

“The most novel thing we’ve done lately is integrating with companies,” CEO Rick Levin tells Fast Company. In high-demand fields like business, data science, and technology, university professors now create Coursera’s content with input from private sponsors. “It’s less bypassing [universities] than augmenting,” he says, noting that “the job skills are evolving so quickly.”

Levin estimates that 50% of Coursera’s students are professionals focused on training and development, and the remainder are “lifelong learners” with no specific career agenda or full-time students looking to supplement their classroom resources. That first group is the most likely to pay for a verified certificate, and thereby the group of greatest interest to investors. The certificates are a form of digital badge, which have begun to gain momentum as an indication of competence on job-seeker sites like LinkedIn.

“The use of these kinds of credentials is going to just take off in the next decade,” Levin says. “If you’re trying to hire people who have competency in iOS programming, for example, having completed a Coursera certification in that field is not a guarantee, but it’s a marker. Employers are probably going to test you anyway, but it’s going to open doors and get you an interview.”

The question facing Coursera is whether employers will give credence to its certificates versus those of another online learning platform. “Our competitors are not the people producing massive open courses, but people producing similar content,” he says. And with companies getting more and more involved in content creation, that list of competitors is only getting longer.