More money for MOOCs: Coursera nabs $43M from diverse set of investors

Just last year, online education startup Coursera raised $22 million in venture funding, but the Mountain View-based company is topping up its coffers once again.
On Wednesday, the startup said it had raised $43 million in a Series B round of financing from an impressive and interesting group of investors, including education-centric investors GSV Capital and Learn Capital, well-known Russian investor Yuri Milner, the International Finance Corporation (which is the investment arm of the World Bank) and Laureate Education, a for-profit higher education provider formerly known as Sylvan Learning.
The funding comes after a year of huge growth – and hype – for the company. In addition to attracting four million students, Coursera said it’s partnered with more than 80 educational institutions worldwide. Beyond that, along with rivals edX and Udacity, the company has sparked considerable interest in (and debate about) massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can educate tens of thousands of students at once.
“I think Coursera has taken off like a rocketship over the last year and the additional funding will allow us to accelerate that,” said Coursera co-founder and Stanford professor Andrew Ng.

Global expansion, mobile apps and support for third-party developers

With the new funding, he said, the company plans to focus on several key areas, including:

  • New mobile apps (coming in the next few months)
  • Deeper international expansion through translation and distribution partnerships
  • Opening up Coursera to enable third-party apps and integrations (long term, the plan is to open up APIs, but in the short term they’ll enable university partners to integrate other apps with Coursera)
  • New features to encourage more collaboration between students

For the most part, it’s been a good year for Coursera – and MOOC providers overall. Institutions aren’t just partnering with the new online learning platforms, they’re experimenting with new models of awarding credit for virtual educational experiences. And, even though attrition rates for MOOCs tend to be low, educators are studying how to make the courses more effective and exploring new approaches that blend online and offline to boost completion and access.
But grumbles from university professors and higher ed leaders are growing. This spring, professors at Amherst College and San Jose State University separately voiced concerns about MOOCs, citing worries ranging from the future of their jobs to the harm to their school’s brand to the detrimental impact on the higher ed system. Last month, a report from Inside Higher Ed said a consortium of schools including the Big 10 universities are questioning partnerships with MOOC providers and are weighing an online learning network of their own.

Despite MOOC critics, Coursera powers ahead

Despite the critics, Coursera is focused on the opportunity it sees ahead, especially when it comes to the international market.  Sites like Berlin’s iversity and the U.K.’s Futurelearn are attempting to bring the MOOC movement to Europe and other upstarts are taking on other regions. But Ng said Coursera believes it can make a big impact in several international markets, including Russia, India and China.
Its forthcoming smartphone and tablet apps are one way the company plans to more deeply infiltrate overseas markets that may have more mobile users and less accessible Internet connections. (The idea is that users will be able to download content to their devices for offline use.) Ng said Coursera is also planning further partnerships with translation companies to make more of its content available in different languages.

How collaborative can a MOOC be?

One of the feature areas I’m most interested in seeing Coursera build out is in collaborative learning. As we’ve covered before, online learning can be a solitary experience. Startups like NovoEd (also from a Stanford professor) and Thinkful are experimenting with new ways of using group dynamics to encourage completion and enhance learning. But Ng said this is becoming an increasingly important area for Coursera.
Possible additions could include live video chats and text chats among students who are online at the same time, group projects and matchmaking students and online tutors, he said.
“Collaborative learning environments are one of the huge missing pieces in a MOOC,” Ng said. “Taking a MOOC is still a lonelier experience than attending a college and I’d like to change that.”