MOOCs provider Coursera has entered into partnerships with some major firms to help course participants put into practice their knowledge in the specialised subjects they have been studying.

MOOCs: Coursera tests out its business model with major companies

The first massive open online courses (MOOCs) platforms to launch in the United States back in 2012 were UdacityedX and Coursera. Today, Coursera boasts the widest range of courses, offering 950 programmes, compared with the 60 and 170 respectively made available by its two competitors. Since the company was first set up by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in California it has enrolled close to 11 million students and attracted venture capital investment totalling $85 million. Nevertheless, given that the platform is founded on the basic principle of offering free online courses, the question has to be: how can it come up with a profitable business model? The company has taken a number of approaches to monetising its business, including granting licences to academic institutions wishing to make use of Coursera courses within their teaching structure and providing official certificates of participation to those who have completed a course.

Partnerships with large companies

More recently Coursera seems to have found a way of generating revenue by entering into partnerships  with major tech sector firms such as Google, Instagram, and Shazam. Last year it launched ‘Specializations’, which consist of a group of related courses designed to help students develop in-depth knowledge of a given subject. These grouped courses focus on a specific theme such as cloud computing, web design, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, etc. When participants have completed these modules they have the option of paying for a certificate. However, they also have an opportunity of undertaking what the MOOCs provider is calling a ‘Capstone project’, designed to help them apply what they have learned to relevant, real-world challenge. Participants on these projects are invited to work on a topic set by a partnering company, for example to create a new app for Google as part of a ‘Mobile Cloud Computing’ specialisation; creating a ‘new social experience‘ for Instagram under the ‘Interaction Design’ programme; or pitching to the founders of 500Startups as part of the ‘Entrepreneurship’ specialisation. Students are asked to pay $49 for each specialisation course – with some modules comprising between three and nine courses – and $49 to take part in the final Capstone project.

A win-win approach for firms and job-candidates ?

Coursera is betting that the partnerships it has set up will benefit both the course participants and the partnering companies. CEO Rick Levin has been quoted as saying that the partnering firms “are not in it for the money,” but that their aim is to be part of a new movement to popularise new types of qualifications and diplomas. There is also the prospect that some firms might be interested in hiring participants upon completion of their Capstone project. Certainly the ‘Specializations’ approach and the linked final projects are likely to help firms get in touch with potential job candidates living outside the US who might not normally take part in a more traditional recruitment process. Such prospects might make young hopefuls even keener to follow one of the ‘Specializations’. Rick Levin also points out that Capstone project participants are more likely to want to pay for a certificate than the average learner on one of the standard MOOCs where, according to a 2013 report from the University of Pennsylvania, the completion rate is only 4%.

By Eliane HONG