Online learning companies like Coursera are helping increase access to university education for India’s growing student population.
The economic and social mobility of an individual is largely determined by education. By democratizing access to affordable and quality higher education, Coursera has made it possible for learners around the world to acquire the knowledge and skills required to succeed in the new economy. The California-based online learning company aims to provide the most flexible, affordable way to earn credentials from the world’s top-ranked universities and leading industry educators.
Excerpts from an interview with Leah Belsky, vice president of global enterprise development at Coursera, about the emerging role of online tools in the future of education.
Which problems in the education system did Coursera set out to improve?
The cost of accessing higher education has been one of the biggest challenges learners encounter. Coursera has dramatically reduced the cost, distance and time barriers to provide learners unprecedented access to the best universities and teachers.
We’re focused on further expanding career-relevant content offerings to fit every online learner’s needs. Online education is not necessarily a substitute for college education, but it is a powerful avenue for individuals to continue learning throughout their career, keeping themselves attuned to changing technology and a dynamic market.
What are some of the main reasons people seek out online education?
To keep pace with the global workplace’s accelerated change, one has to be a lifelong learner. Professionals today realize the importance of upskilling and staying relevant. The lack of infrastructure, amenities and trained personnel in the education sector is another reason contributing to the uptake of online courses.
The future of job and learning are converging. We can’t afford to stop learning and expect to grow in our career. Our learning effort has to match the pace of technological changes taking place in the world.
By 2025, India will have the largest student-age population in the world, and the Indian government aims to increase university enrollment by 30 percent by 2020. Please share your thoughts about India’s potential as a target for online education.
India’s incredible demographic dividend, including its young population, makes it the envy of the world. This potential is waiting to be realized in the new world economy, where there is a shortage of skilled workers. Unfortunately, India does not have adequate institutional capacity to accommodate and serve such a growing learner population, and professionals looking to re-skill or upskill themselves.
This is where ed-tech companies like Coursera play a significant role, by providing individuals the required flexibility and personalization to learn skills for the future. We are already witnessing India take the lead in adoption of our enterprise platform that allows companies to partner with us on employee learning and development. We are investing heavily in growing these partnerships and in launching content that aligns with the needs of our learners in India.
Are employers increasingly open to accepting MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online coursework when hiring?
Coursera certificates are the second-most posted badges on LinkedIn, which positively indicates the significance given by potential and current employers. Moreover, the success of Coursera for Business [training and development programs for organizations developed by top universities and companies] establishes the importance given to online courses by employers these days. Globally, we have partnered with over 1000 enterprises and over 40 in India, including the likes of Infosys, Axis Bank, Tata Communications, AXA and Airtel.
How has machine learning and analytics from your users helped customize Coursera?
We are applying science and machine learning to build personalized discovery and content recommendations for our learners, much like a career counselor. The other big tool we use is Big Data. Every day, we track millions of interactions of our learners with our product. With this huge amount of data, we continuously run experiments to validate the behaviors of learning and improve our platform on a daily basis. By analyzing the data, we can also provide very specific feedback to the instructors to improve their content. With features like these, we aim to make the process of choosing a learning path easier for our learners.
What new technology is Coursera currently working with to improve the online learning experience?
For countries like India, where network speeds are often slow, our team has worked hard to build a heterogeneous data-fetching framework to support a seamless online or offline experience. Learners can download videos and watch any time without an Internet connection. We also offer an audio mode, which allows learners to listen to the content without draining their phone’s battery. This is a popular mode for commuters; 96 percent of all our courses can be completed entirely on the mobile app.
We have also introduced innovations like in-browser coding, where computer science learners won’t have to always download a new coding environment to practice, which will help them learn better without any hassle.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.