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How EdTech Leader Coursera Became the Leader of the Online Learning Space

Coursera is the world’s biggest EdTech company with over 28 million online learners around the world. The company also has over 150 university partners and more than 2,000 courses. But it was all made possible by two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng, and Daphne Koller, who came up with a simple concept to provide access to quality education to anyone, anywhere.

Since 2012 Coursera has been transforming lives through learning and is also redefining higher education by providing global access to content and credentials from the world’s top universities. When new CEO Jeff Maggioncalda took the reins last year, I felt compelled to find out more about what attracted him to the company and how he would continue Coursera's legacy of transforming lives through learning.

We discussed how technology is transforming careers, training, and entire industries as we enter the digital transformation of everything. At a time where Coursera was approaching a unicorn valuation, I wanted to learn more about how we can all reskill and re-invent ourselves along with what the future holds for Coursera.

Neil: Can you tell me more about the story behind Coursera?

Jeff: The company was started by a couple of Stanford professors in computer science, Daphne Kohler and Andrew Ng. Andrew was one of the very famous machine learning people who became a bit of a celebrity in AI circles and together they were teaching courses at Stanford.

There was a lot of demand, and there's oversubscription of the courses, not all the students could fit. So they said, we should put these courses online and make this available to more people. Well, 100,000 students showed up from around the world, and they said, you know, there's a real demand for learning now.

However, it's important to remember that back then, the cloud wasn't really super available, low-cost bandwidth, low-cost storage, low-cost computing power was all relatively new. Coursera was launched to create a platform where the top universities in the world can publish courses to anyone who might want to learn about almost anything.

The company has certainly evolved, but our job at Coursera is still to transform lives through learning.

Neil: What is that make Coursera unique from other Ed-tech solutions out there at the moment?

Jeff: I think one of the things that really makes it unique is it's an open platform, so it's available to anybody in the world, and we just crested $30 million learners, over half of whom are not in North America. So it really is a global learning platform.

The 2000 courses that are available come from the top universities in the world in North America, Europe, and Asia. I think we have some of the best content. We have more learners than anybody, and then recently we've done a couple of things that have continued to expand our mission of trying to provide a world-class education to everybody.

We also launched Coursera for business after we saw a lot of companies saying the world's changing very quickly. The nature of jobs and their business along with the rising expectations of their customers was becoming a big wakeup call.

They were facing new competition and an evolving supply chain that were all being transformed by data and technology. Business leaders were faced with the problem that their people didn't have all the skills they needed. They came to us asking, can I use Coursera at my company to educate my employees?

So we started selling Coursera into businesses, and in the first year, we have been hired by over 500 companies, including over 20 of the fortune 500. We have been helping them to transform the talent within their companies using this cutting edge, a teaching platform and this top quality content from our partners.

Outside of that, we have had our first graduating class of MBA students at the University of Illinois who have taken a fully accredited MBA, entirely online on Coursera. They are now issuing MBA's full exact duplicates of the MBA for $20,000 that you can do at your own pace, and it's available to anyone in the world, and you don't have to go on campus.

Neil: I love how the story behind Coursera is not just around technology or Ed-tech, but around 2 Stanford professors on a mission to provide access to quality education to anyone and anywhere. Can you expand on that core belief that took you to where you’re today?

Jeff: In the beginning, with Daphne and Andrew, it was we're professors, a lot of people want to take the courses we're teaching. It's these types of skills are going to be more critical in the future. We want to teach at scale.

I think what has evolved is a more significant and more profound challenge that the world is facing. Coursera has opened up and expanded to attack, and it's the nature of change. The world is changing so fast and in a lot of this is because of technology.

Technology is changing the way people communicate, and it is changing the nature of jobs. A lot of reports are talking about artificial intelligence and robotics, eliminating jobs and creating new jobs in this way.

So I think technology has been one of the big things that have been changing faster and faster and frankly globalization has as well. We're able to utilize workforces that are global in nature. It's changing jobs around the globe and exploiting labor markets that didn't have a lot of economic opportunities, it creates a lot of dislocation and creates opportunity.

However it also creates a lot of dislocation, and in order to keep up and not be left behind, almost every adult in the world will need to learn for the rest of their lives. Coursera was set up to solve what I think is one of the most significant problems in the world, which is how do you help people keep up in a world that is changing so quickly?

Neil: Now we're entering the digital transformation and technology will remove traditional roles, we need to remember that it will also create a whole new range of jobs. Its how do we educate and bring the staff along for the ride isn't it?

Jeff: Yeah, absolutely, and I point around Coursera for business, it's possible to conceive of a world where an employer says, Hey, I'm going to need new skills. My current employees don't have them. I'll fire them and hire a bunch of other people already have those skills.

There is such a rapid change in the skills that are being needed in the number of people that have them, that companies cannot hire, fire and hire the way out of the problem. They're going to have to re-educate their people and I think it's one of the reasons why Coursera for business is growing so rapidly is I think companies have realized to stay competitive, they can't just bring in all new employees.

Whereas existing employees are often left thinking, where do I take these classes? How can I afford to do this? How do I make time for this in a world where I have children, and I have a job, and I've got a busy life. In my opinion, the idea of very low cost, self-paced learning at work, often paid for by your employer is a model of what the future will look like for adult learning.

Neil: If we have to look at the broader employment landscape, how do you see that rise of massive open online courses helping or improving training for businesses? I mean, do you think it goes beyond the data protection and health and safety courses that everybody dreads?

Jeff: I do. Certainly, compliance training has been an excellent business for many e-learning companies, and one of the reasons is people have to take it. They're forced to take these classes, and frequently the companies make time to take the course, and the quality is not always really high because they know they've got a captive audience who's compelled to do it, but I do think it goes far beyond compliance.

I think that kind of compulsory learning is shifting. Not Shifting that will always be there, but it is becoming more and more required to learn not just about compliance but about data, about statistics, about the way that you might do digital marketing, about the way that supply chains work, or even ways to use social media in business with your employees or with your customers.

There's a lot that needs to be learned beyond compliance that I think companies are realizing is becoming mission critical because their competition is changing quickly and their customers are changing quickly. If you have a business where your competition is changing fast, your customers are changing, and if you're not, you have a problem.

I think that massively open courses that go from classes all the way up to credentials like degrees will be a relevant part of the workplace. Learning experiences go way beyond compliance.

My conversation with Jeff taught me that none of us have an excuse not to learn a new skill or obtain a new qualification. Especially now we don't even have to leave our homes to get a degree. With 28 million learners around the world, 150 plus university partners and more and over 2000 courses, it seems that every day is a school day.

If you would like to hear the full conversation with Jeff Maggioncalda, you can listen to the podcast episode below.

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