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The future of education is digital, online learning platform CEO says

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Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda says a class on the science of well-being is the most popular on the platform right now. "Very job-relevant, practical courses seem to be the ones that most people are turning to." iStock/Getty Images

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, online learning options were growing. But now, with around a billion and a half students worldwide displaced from schools, education institutions are scrambling to offer e-learning tools.

Much like it did for working from home, COVID-19 may be showing us what is possible in remote education. Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of the online learning platform Coursera, said “online learning, with an ability to work remotely, I think, is a tremendous opportunity to provide, not only learning, but also job opportunities to a much broader class of people.” Coursera puts college and other lectures online for remote learning. It’s based in Palo Alto, California, and has pulled in tens of millions of new customers this year.

During the pandemic, the company has opened up many of its courses on an emergency basis so that colleges that closed their campuses could keep the learning flowing by building curricula on top of lectures already recorded.

Maggioncalda spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about the major uptick in interest in online learning since the onset of the pandemic and how Coursera is dealing with the large influx of students. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: What’s the dynamic here? It must be people under lockdown with extra time on their hands and wanting to learn something new.

Jeff Maggioncalda: It’s a number of things, but it really starts with that. When we look at UNESCO, who tracks schools and students, they found that in April, 1.6 billion students had their schools closed. And so a lot of these students, and also people, to your point, who are working from home, decided, “I’ve got some time, I’d like to keep learning.” And, largely, they came to Coursera and other places like Coursera. Since the mid-March period, we saw 14 million new registered learners, we now have 64 million learners and almost 30 million course enrollments. This is up 500% from the same period a year ago. So a lot of demand from students at home and from people who have been working from home.

Brancaccio: People with the extra time on their hands or maybe they don’t have to commute anymore, so they have a little extra time. But, also, we have tens of millions of people driven out of work by the pandemic and some or many won’t be offered their old jobs back. Are you noticing people trying to get new skills through online learning?

Jeff Maggioncalda (Courtesy Maggioncalda)

Maggioncalda: Absolutely. When we look at the top five courses on Coursera in 2020, in terms of popularity, the number one course, with 2.2 million enrollments, is the science of well-being. It’s a course by Yale that talks about how do you make choices to make yourself happy and the biology of happiness. Number two is Machine Learning by Stanford. Number three is Programming for Everyone in Python, from University of Michigan, then Learning How To Learn and then English for Career Development from University of Pennsylvania. So, very job-relevant, practical courses seem to be the ones that most people are turning to.

Brancaccio: You have individuals logging in and signing up, but you also work with universities to help them get their courses online when they can’t teach in person.

Maggioncalda: We’ve partnered with about 170 top universities around the world together over the last eight years and have created about 4300 courses. And then what happened in the March time period is we started offering what we call Coursera for Campus. For every university in the world, we said you can use Coursera for Campus and our partners courses for free through Sept. 30, just to help deal with the pandemic and the fact that campuses were closed and most universities weren’t in a position to do online education very quickly. So, this was really helpful to them.

Brancaccio: A very interesting evolution, but let me ask something really big picture. We have been asking as many people as we can find about reimagining the economy post-pandemic, not just patching it back up to where it was in February, but creating something that works better for more people. How would you reimagine education, given everything that we’re going through now?

Maggioncalda: I think that in order to have good economic opportunities, people need access to high-quality education, so they can develop skills that are relevant in the workforce. And online learning makes it much more straightforward, more affordable, more accessible, more convenient. Anytime, anywhere, anyone can learn online, and that’s really powerful. But the learning is only a piece of the puzzle. The other piece of the puzzle is getting a job. If you need to leave your community, if you need to move your family in order to get to a place where there are good jobs to apply those skills you’ve learned online, that’s a big friction point. I think it’s a one-two punch: online learning with an ability to work remotely, I think, is a tremendous opportunity to provide, not only learning, but also job opportunities to a much broader class of people.

Brancaccio: All this does underscore the issue of access to fast internet and a decent computer. Students that don’t have that get left behind. It becomes a public policy issue.

Maggioncalda: What we have seen when we talk to governments, and this is to me, very appropriate, most governments are now looking at internet connectivity as something similar to electricity and water and other fundamental utilities that a society needs to run on. So I do think it’s a matter of public policy and government action to make sure there’s equal access to the internet. But once that access is facilitated, the number of learning opportunities is vast even today, and I believe that the number of remote job opportunities will also be vast in the near future.

Brancaccio: But you wouldn’t argue that you could replace most campuses. I mean, education, as you know, is not just about those classes. It’s mixing with other students, bonding with mentors and all that networking that goes on. There’s still a place for, once we get over this pandemic, a place where people go to get their classes.

Maggioncalda: Absolutely. There will definitely be a place that’s available for people to go, but I do not believe you’ll be required to go. Now, [for] young children, it is really important that socialization is a huge part, a central part of the learning process. As you get older, though, and you become a professional, you have a family, it is not very likely that people will quit their jobs and go back to campus once they’ve started working and have a family. And that’s a lot of people. I also think that even when you’re on campus, there will be online learning because it’s more effective, more personalized and more flexible. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be lecture halls and seminars on campus. But I really think even on campus, the backbone of the learning process will be digital. And then there will be a lot of people that learn online who don’t have to go back to campus in order to do it.

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