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Leading MOOC provider announces full degree programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Coursera, the world’s largest MOOC platform by enrolment, has announced that it will launch six new degree programmes, with both undergraduate and graduate options, over 2018 and 2019
  • The first new degree, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science offered with the University of London, will have its first intake in April 2019

When we last reported on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), we noted that non-traditional markets such as lifelong learners and corporations are playing a major part in driving the sector’s continued growth. But we also observed a growing appetite among major MOOC providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and FutureLearn to capture greater market share in more traditional higher education programming, including full degrees.

So far, the early options along these lines have primarily been master’s degrees offered in conjunction with elite institutions. But now, Coursera, the leading MOOC provider by enrolment, has announced that it will offer its first fully online bachelor’s degree: a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science provided in partnership with the University of London.

This is the first of six new degree programmes that Coursera will launch through 2018 and 2019. Along with London’s Computer Science degree, the others include:

  • Master of Computer Science (with Arizona State University)
  • Global Master of Public Health (Imperial College London)
  • Master of Computer Science (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  • Master of Public Health (University of Michigan)
  • Master of Applied Data Science (University of Michigan)

To date, bachelor’s programmes have encountered much less uptake in the MOOC space than master’s programmes. Speaking with EdSurge, Dhawal Shah, founder of MOOC discovery platform Class Central, said he was “surprised to hear that Coursera is offering a bachelor’s degree.” He commented that, “I haven’t seen any [MOOC provider] be successful in the bachelor’s space.”

But the new Coursera bachelor’s degree is part of a fundamental business goal. According to a Coursera spokesperson, “A major focus for the company moving forward will be working with our university partners to grow the number of degree programmes on our platform.”

Cost depends on location

Included in the business strategy for the Coursera–University of London Bachelor of Science in Computer Science is a flexible cost structure. The cost range is £9,600– £17,000 (roughly US$13,300– US$23,500), dependent on where in the world the student lives. A student from a developing country, for example, will pay less than one from a developed market.

Widening the market

A challenge that MOOC providers have encountered with undergraduate degrees is related to their main user base: a relatively older demographic. For example, according to Coursera, the vast majority (90%) of its 30 million users are over the age of 22 – a little older than the typical age at which students embark on their first degree. To address this challenge, Coursera intends to market the new University of London degree to students who already have a bachelor’s degree and are interested in ongoing career development as well as to students entering higher education for the first time.

Coursera’s maturing and increasingly well-known brand may also set its new bachelor’s degree up for success. The MOOC provider now has millions of past users who have taken its courses, providing an existing market in which to promote the University of London degree.

A changing model?

Class Central founder Dhawal Shah suggested an intriguing possibility related to Coursera’s future growth trajectory in speaking with EdSurge: “In some ways, maybe Coursera is becoming more like a traditional OPM,” he said, where OPM (or online programme manager) is an abbreviation used to describe companies that work to help colleges build online degree programmes.

The comment is particularly interesting in the context of new research demonstrating that the student markets for online versus in-person university courses are very different. A case in point is Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science, which is delivered on the Udacity platform.

The MOOC version of Georgia Tech’s master’s was offered for only US$6,630, much less than the cost of the in-person equivalent. It was a significant risk: would the MOOC cannibalise the in-person (and much more expensive) market for the degree? Would the MOOC version drag down revenue as opposed to boosting it?

In the end, the risk paid off, with Georgia Tech’s online master’s going on to be the largest master’s degree programme in the US, which Harvard University public policy researcher Joshua Goodman attributes to a strategy of “appealing to a group of people who would not otherwise have pursued master’s degrees.”

Mr Goodman co-authored a report published in Education Next, an academic journal. According to Inside Higher Ed, that report found that,

“… the typical applicant to the online programme was a 34-year-old mid-career American, while the typical applicant to the in-person degree was a 24-year-old recent graduate from India. Of the 18,000 students who applied to the in-person and online degrees, less than 0.2% applied to both.”

The report also found that “there is currently an unmet demand for high-quality, low-cost degrees like Georgia Tech’s.”

For this reason, it well be that the University of London is considering its new Computer Science degree with Coursera not as a MOOC, but also as an important extension of a degree it already offers – into a new student demographic and into emerging markets, with a price range that greatly widens access to the programme.

With distance learning and online courses key to many prestigious institutions located far from desirable emerging markets, the OPM angle of MOOCs – with fees attached to courses – may only become more enticing, and at the same time as the major MOOC platforms are sharpening their focus on students prepared to pay for online learning.

Overall, 78 million students enrolled in MOOCs in 2017, a roughly 35% increase over the previous year.

For additional background, please see:

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