Coronavirus is giving online higher education a second chance to prove its worth

Open classroom.
Open classroom.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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With an increasing number of universities shutting down campuses and shifting their learning online to try and contain the spread of coronavirus, Coursera, a US online education company, announced today (March 12) that it will provide any impacted university in the world with free access to its 3,800 courses.

Universities that sign up can give their enrolled students access to 95% of its catalog which come from190 partner universities, including Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and Yale, among others. Institutions facing coronavirus disruptions will have free access until July 31, at which time Coursera will offer month-to-month extensions “depending on prevailing risk assessments”.

“The spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) is the most serious global health security threat in decades,” Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera’s CEO, said in a statement. “We are fortunate to have university and industry partners, who have been at the forefront of responding to the challenges humanity has faced from time to time. “

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, were originally born a decades ago to democratize access to higher education. Students and teachers around the globe rushed head first into the world’s largest ed tech experiment but institutions later grew disappointed as it became clear students did not finish courses. Universities now face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the world to experiment with MOOCs and the question will be, again, whether they can deliver.

Coursera was set up in 2012 by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, computer science professor at Stanford University, to open access to the world’s best teachers and courses. That year, MOOCs exploded: Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each ponied up $30 million to create edX. Coursera backers include major players in ed tech venture capital: Kleiner Perkins, New Enterprise Associates GSV Capital, Learn Capital, and SEEK Group.

A low completion rate

But MOOCs ran into a wall when research showed very few learners finished the courses they started (one study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that online courses had an astronomical dropout rate of about 96% on average over five years). Today, many have changed their business models. Coursera no longer tracks (or discloses) completion rates but rather looks at skills acquisition, says Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer at Coursera.

Many MOOC providers now charge fees and they’re offering bundles of courses called ‘specializations’ or ‘nanodegrees’ to encourage completion, and partnering with colleges and universities to offer MOOC-based degrees online. For example, Coursera offers a bachelor of science in computer science degree from the University of London and various masters degrees in data science from the University of Michigan, Imperial College London, and the University of Colorado. Coursera also has signed up 2,300 companies who use it to train employees and a portal used by governments to train its workers.

Six months ago Coursera launched Coursera for Campus which allows universities to buy licenses for a certain number of students rather than students buying their own courses. It was a timely decision. When Duke Kunshan University, Duke’s Chinese campus, faced a shut down, it asked if it could access the whole catalog of Coursera classes and not just Duke classes (Duke is a partner university so Duke students can take Duke courses on Coursera). After it offered its 587 students access, 162 of them enrolled in courses.

Between January and February, Coursera saw a 47% spike in enrollments in China and Hong Kong and a 30% jump in Vietnam, all countries impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak. Additionally, there was a 30% increase in total enrollments for public health content on Coursera and a 185% jump in enrollments for public health content in China and Hong Kong.

Since going live on February 18, Imperial College London’s course Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19 has 13,500 enrollments, making it the second most popular course launched on Coursera in 2020 so far.

Other online universities are seeing the same. Shai Reshef is the president of University of the People, a non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university. He has seen similar gains: Since February there’s been a 200% jump in students applying in Japan, Korea, and Italy, and an increase of 50% so far in the US. The distinction between traditional and online is fading. “We are mainstream now,” he said.

100 universities a day

After seeing the experience with Duke Kunshan, Coursera quickly decided to build a team to expedite the on-boarding for institutions, a process that used to take days. Now 100 universities should be able to sign up a day, Belsky says.  It will hold webinars and have partners share resources, as institutions transition to online during the crisis.

Laura Nova a professor of creative arts and technology at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, just found out the school will be closed for at least an additional week after Spring Break. She teaches digital photography, professional development, internships, and senior projects, all classes which rely on in person collaborative work.  She welcomed the option to use Coursera as she will need a lot of tools to reconfigure her three classes which took place in person to now meet over the internet. ”It’s offering me some alternatives when my school is online,” she said.

But just raw content is not everything, she noted. Collaboration is key in her classes, and she will have to figure out how to build that virtually. Many of her students are low income and don’t have laptops, so she will explore the use of mobile technology for her courses.

Universities are notoriously slow at adopting technology. While no one wanted coronavirus, it is certainly providing an opportunity for a massive, global experiment in online learning. Still, it’s unclear whether any more students will finish their courses online this time around, though having no alternatives changes the odds that they will. 

“We’re in a moment when coronavirus is forcing some rapid experimentation with educational technology that might have otherwise taken years if not not decades to happen,” said Belsky. That’s a good thing, she said, “because the education system has two key problems; one, there’s a profound lack of access to higher education and more technology adoption can enable more access, and there’s a big problem with quality.”

Both of those will now be tested at scale.

Correction: This story has been updated with the proper spelling of Shai Reshef.