MOOCs: monetizing via matching employers and students

This is a possible end-run around the traditional credentialing monopoly. E.g., if Google finds that the student data available through Udacity or Coursera is very predictive of employee performance, then that is the basis for a happy partnership between employer and educator. Udacity in particular is focused upon innovating ways to improve the acquisition of true competence in each subject they offer (not just demonstrating the ability to cram for finals to earn the typical university diploma).

(…) On Tuesday, Coursera, which works with high-profile colleges to provide massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, announced its employee-matching service, called Coursera Career Services. 

(…) Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, said in an interview that 350 partner companies had signed up for its job program. While Mr. Thrun would not say how much employers pay, he characterized the fee as “significantly less than you’d pay for a headhunter, but significantly more than what you’d pay for access to LinkedIn,” a popular social network for job hunters.

“We’re more like a headhunter,” said Mr. Thrun. “We go through our database and find people that seem to be good matches for the openings from these companies.” Udacity says companies using its job-matching program include Google, Amazon, Facebook, and several tech start-ups.

In the case of one computer-science course offered through Udacity, the online students took the same quizzes and tests as a group of students enrolled at Stanford University at the same time. The top 411 students all came from the thousands of students who took the course online, with the strongest-performing Stanford student ranking 412th in the final standings, said Mr. Thrun. (That Stanford student earned a 98-percent score in the course.)

“There are a huge number of people out there who are extremely skilled but happen not to have the Stanford degree,” said Mr. Thrun.

(…) One Udacity student, Tamir Duberstein, said that company’s job program had helped him land a gig at Square, a trendy company that lets consumers submit credit-card payments using smartphones and tablet computers. He was living in Toronto, working at a job he didn’t enjoy, when he took a series of computer-programming courses from Udacity, spending nearly all of his free time on them. “I got the best possible result in a few of them,” he said.

One day this past summer, Udacity sent him an e-mail asking whether he’d be interested in sending in his résumé as part of its job service. “Once your résumé is received, it will be prescreened and possibly shared with a few selected employers with your permission,” the message said.

He sent his in, but didn’t expect much. “I was like, What the hell, sure, why not?,” he remembers.

A few weeks later, he heard first from one tech company and then from Square.

Mr. Duberstein said that the job-interview process included plenty of technical questions asking him to prove he had the skills that he had learned in the Udacity courses. “The point here is not credentialing,” he said. “They quizzed me. They really were assessing what I know for themselves.”

Both Coursera and Udacity show employers more than just student grades. They also highlight students who frequently help others in discussion forums.

Mr. Thrun, of Udacity, said those “softer skills” are often more useful to employers than raw academic performance.

“Problems are never solved in isolation in the real world,” he said. He said that Udacity might share with an employer someone who has helped 90 to 100 people in discussion forums. “That specific skill has been a better predictor of placement success than academic performance,” he added.

Mr. Ng, of Coursera, reported a similar trend. And frequently the top-performing students also post the most valuable comments in student forums, as counted by how many students “vote up” a comment, or signal that it was helpful by clicking a thumbs-up button. “Students in the top 10 percent had twice as many up-voted posts in the student forums as the students not in the top 10 percent,” he said.

(…) 

I think we are going to see ferocious competition, and hence innovation, in the MOOC universe. Education has never experienced anything like the rate of innovation that is just beginning. 

BTW, looks like Coursera is going after one of the obvious monetization channels – fees for completion certificates. I.e., the education can be free, but the credentials will cost. I have not problem at all with that model — the marginal cost of delivering high quality learning is so much lower for the MOOCs that the certificate fees should be totally a bargain compared to Stanford tuition, fees, etc.

Mr. Ng said that the largest source of revenue will probably come from selling certificates, rather than such matching. So far the company has not charged for certificates, but it plans to start doing so in the coming months.

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