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Recruiting Intelligence

The Storm Front on the Horizon: Coursera By The Numbers

Today's Intead Insight may appear like an advertisement for Coursera. It's not. It just looks that way because the figures from Coursera are remarkable. They have grown from two courses to 532 courses within 24 months. From one university partner to 107. Let us just say, BAM!

Scale has never been an easy (or even relevant?) metric for higher education institutions. Teaching scale has never meant better quality. The largest campus universities in the U.S. have 60,000 students (Arizona State and University of Central Florida). The famous Ivy League institutions have undergraduate populations between 4,000 and 13,000 students. Such numbers are rather insignificant for a country with 20 million college students in all. But online providers such as Phoenix started changing perspective on scale by enrolling 600,000 students at its peak. Yes, we are aware of the issues surrounding for-profit recruitment, yet they are competing for students just as the not-for-profit institutions are and they've captured a growing slice of the market. This bears investigating and comparisons. But not right now. Today, we are focused on the scale and the associated growth potential Coursera represents in terms of:

  • Breadth of academic offerings
  • Teaching enhancements (complements to existing academic programs)
  • Quality improvements in those offerings (including evaluation capacity/certifications)
  • Digital data analysis capacity (measuring what content is being retained by students and so much more)
  • Recruiting capacity (ability to scale online)
  • Capacity to influence future generations

No one knows how Coursera -- as a for profit venture capital funded entity -- will make money, if they ever do. But we have been in the digital industry for 20 years and we have seen scale as a critical success factor for many digital ventures. Most marginal cost elements decline rather dramatically for digital services and many digital business models rely almost exclusively on scale.

At its start, few understood that LinkedIn could be a large dominating professional social network with hundreds of millions in annual revenue. Facebook, Twitter, and Google all have such scale and reach advantages that competitors have difficulty breaking into the market. Even when they have large marketing budgets behind them. Ask Microsoft's Bing how it feels to be second to Google.

So education is experiencing a new dynamic with actors such as Coursera and edX. Both of them have successfully co-opted and cooperate with existing top universities around the world to become key players. And they are quickly moving toward the role of major market disruptors. And with our focus on international student recruitment, how could we not be enamored of this tremendous global outreach? With so many students registering, their ability to pitch academic content to the key demographic we are all trying to reach, their ability to shape the discussion and influence trends in what students are interested in studying, their ability to create a social media buzz, cannot be ignored. There is tremendous marketing potential here in addition to their desire to spread knowledge far and wide. That may sound crass, but, well, it is simply true. Let's hope the adage, "with great power comes great responsibility," holds some sway.

At this point, the distribution and brand power of these online players probably exceeds the brand power of most of the higher education institutions in the U.S. except for a handful of institutions at the top. Like other online companies, Coursera has built a bigger audience and brand faster than any other education entity in history. Let's see where Coursera will take us in the next 24 months. It's certainly an exciting development to watch.

Coursera Infographic
Topics: Insights