In Deals With 10 Public Universities, Coursera Bids for Role in Credit Courses

May 30, 2013

Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based provider of massive open online courses, announced on Thursday a series of deals with state universities that would place the young company squarely in the middle of the current upheaval in public higher education.

The company, which has made its name by working outside higher education's tuition-based credentialing system, announced partnerships with 10 public institutions that would extend well beyond providing support for new MOOCs.

Under the new deals, Coursera is recasting itself as a platform for credit-bearing courses that would be offered to students enrolled at multiple campuses within a public-university system.

The deals mark a shift for Coursera, which until now has focused on making free, online versions of courses taught by professors at elite colleges.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, acknowledged that the company was venturing into new terrain. After studying their MOOC users, the company realized that most of them had already earned college degrees, said Ms. Koller. That was well and good, but it suggested to Coursera's founders that MOOCs would not be sufficient to achieve their ambitions.

"If you're looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you're going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with," Ms. Koller said.

The company's new partners are the State University of New York system, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska system, the University of New Mexico system, the University System of Georgia, and West Virginia University.

What the Contract Says

The Chronicle obtained a copy of Coursera's contract with the University of Kentucky, and the document provides details on how the partnerships might work. (Ms. Koller said the new contracts were all "pretty much identical, with minor tweaks.")

The document differs substantially from the ones Coursera signed with its early university partners. Those contracts focused on the dynamics of producing and collecting revenue from MOOCs open to the public.

The Kentucky contract deals with additional kinds of collaboration. For example, the document outlines how the university would administer "guided" or "adopted" courses—courses that are developed, either by Kentucky or another Coursera partner, for use by students at the university. It also addresses how the university and the company would go about licensing Kentucky's Coursera courses to other colleges, and how they would divide revenue generated by any of those courses.

When it comes to content Kentucky creates for its own students on the Coursera platform, the revenue-sharing agreement is set up to nudge the university toward using each "guided" course widely across the system.

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for "course development." After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Payments to Coursera for use of "adopted" courses—those developed elsewhere—would be similarly tiered. Under the contract, if the university charged each student in a course the same tuition rate, it would get to keep a greater share of tuition revenue as it enrolled more students in the course.

In all likelihood, a university offering a "guided" Coursera course to enrolled students for credit would provide them with additional support and opportunities for interaction with instructors and classmates, making those courses fundamentally different from conventional MOOCs.

Nonetheless, Coursera's "guided" offerings could change the scale of delivery for certain courses, said Ms. Koller. "I think it is going to be massive in the sense that a single course would be offered across an entire university system," she said.

'A Robust Debate'

There is, of course, a difference between accounting for those scenarios and bringing them into being. There is no guarantee that Coursera's new partners will pursue some of the more provocative uses of the company's materials immediately, if at all; and even then, there are politics to consider.

At Kentucky, for example, the use of "guided" and "adopted" Coursera courses is purely hypothetical, said Vince Kellen, a senior vice provost. The university is more interested in building MOOCs—specifically, a course in chemistry aimed at preparing high-school students for college-level work—and has no immediate plans to use "guided" or "adopted" courses through Coursera, he said.

"If we get to the stage where these were to be offered for credit, I'm sure we would have a robust debate within the faculty and the University Senate," said Mark S. Meier, chair of the chemistry department at Kentucky.

Still, Mr. Kellen said he would not rule out using the Coursera partnership to streamline certain parts of the curriculum in the future.

"I am fairly confident that MOOC-like techniques could be a viable option for certain high-volume operations," he said. "And I would say large lectures are one of those."