Coursera Hits 4 Million Students
Coursera founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng don't think small. Their Palo Alto, Calif., online-education company is less than two years old, yet it already has attracted more than 4 million student signups. Now Coursera has raised $43 million in fresh venture capital, tripling its cash available for growth.
Coursera is one of a handful of fast-growing startups (others include Udacity and EdX) that use the internet to provide free, college-level instruction. Subjects span everything from computer science to history, poetry and health-care policy. Coursera's instructors include globally known professors from at least 73 universities worldwide, ranging from Brown to the University of Tokyo. The U.S. accounts for less than half of Coursera's overall student enrollment; other prominent countries include Brazil,India, China, Canada, Britain, Russia and Germany.
So what comes next?
Some clues can be found in Coursera's latest choices of backers. When the company raised $22 million last year, it tapped primarily into mainstream Silicon Valley venture capital firms (Kleiner Perkins and New Enterprise Associates.) This time around, Coursera is raising much of its fresh $43 million from three specialized ed-tech funds (GSV Capital, Laureate Education and Learn Capital.) Other funds are coming from the World Bank's investment arm (International Finance Corp.), as well as from Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner.
The implicit message: Coursera's next frontiers involve better pedagogy and greater globalization. In an interview, Koller said she wants to enhance Coursera's technology, so that students can have 'an even better experience' when they take classes online. She noted that Coursera has started building up a mobile-devices team, so that students in emerging markets - who may not have round-the-clock access to computers with Internet connectivity - can still get some of their coursework done via smartphones or tablets.
Also on Koller's list: opening up Coursera to applications developers, so that individual instructors or student groups can cook up customized apps that will allow easier, more fruitful interactions among students. 'People learn better in a social setting,' Koller observed.
Coursera is likely to keep pushing to add more participating universities, more classes, and more students. But rampant growth for its own sake can be associated with superficial student engagement that translates into low completion rates, listless participation in discussions, and flimsy record-keeping that can leave doubts about how much students actually learned.
Coursera has adopted a two-track approach, letting big free enrollments persist while also created a Signature Track program in which the most-committed students pay to take a digitally proctored exam that verifies their identity and achievements. Koller said Coursera booked more than $600,000 in revenue from its Signature services in the quarter ended June 30, up from $220,000 the previous quarter. She also noted that more than 90% of students opting for the signature track go on to successfully complete their courses - far above the usual retention rate.
Like Udacity and EdX, Coursera makes heavy use of interactive, Web 2.0 tools in its massive open online courses, or MOOCs. That's a sharp contrast with the 'taped lecture' approach that had been a hallmark of earlier distance-learning efforts. Even though an individual MOOC may attract 100,000 or more students worldwide, each course offers personalization on several levels, in a bid to keep students engaged.
Within the central instruction module, snap quizzes - with instant online grading - typically break up instructors' material every few minutes. That's meant to ensure that students grasp key concepts and aren't just blinking idly as new concepts stream past. Meanwhile, students keep participating between formal sessions, through various online forums and chat groups with their peers.
Looking ahead, Koller said she thinks it's unlikely that Coursera will seek to sell itself to an existing education company. 'I'm not sure that the companies that might want to buy us would have the right goals,' she explained. 'And our university agreements are very flexible. If the schools aren't comfortable with a new direction, they could leave and go do something else. We aren't interested in being acquired.'
Could a public stock offering lie ahead instead? 'I don't think we have a choice,' Koller said. 'We have outside investors, and they expect a return.'