Why The World's Largest Provider Of Online Courses Thinks It's The Answer To Getting Ahead In The New Economy

Coursera's Director of Business Development Julia Stiglitz is all for traditional education models that focus on general skills and knowledge, but she says it's not enough. Here's what she believes online education can do for you.

Two years out of college, Andy was working for a think tank in Washington, D.C. He had graduated from Amherst College with a political science degree and had also completed a prestigious Fulbright research fellowship. He was smart and had strong qualitative research skills. But he was frustrated. The "quant guy" at work "got to do all the fun stuff." Andy simply did not have the skills to move his career in that direction.

Searching for a solution, he discovered a free online data analysis course on Coursera taught by Johns Hopkins professor Jeff Leek. He immediately signed up, immersed himself in course lectures, and, for the next eight Saturday mornings, met with a fellow student to review assignments and work through challenging problems.

Andy passed the course, reaching what he referred to as "the critical point of self-sustaining knowledge." A few months later, he applied for a quantitative analyst position in a different firm. He talked about the course in his cover letter and in his interview. And when he got the job, he tweeted "I got my job bc I took @jtleek's class," which is how I met Andy.

Andy’s story is a familiar one

Not every 18-year-old knows what they want to do with their life; few fully understand the market demand for different skills and competencies; and none know exactly how industries and the implications for their future careers will evolve.

Our traditional education model has many virtues, but it is front-loaded and not designed to accommodate the volatility of individual career aspirations or that of the market.

A big part of the challenge is that the half-life of knowledge and skills is decreasing. I look at our Coursera engineers, mostly in their mid to late 20s, and consider all the programming they’re doing in languages that literally did not exist when they were in school.

The traditional model is also out of sync with the current generation of highly mobile millennials who, on average, change jobs every 3.2 years in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

A front-loaded model focused on general and transferable skills and knowledge has a place, but it’s clear that it needs to be complemented with training that is more current and dynamic.

Filling vacancies with skilled labor

In a high-skills economy, the labor market requires constant infusion of up-to-date skills to work well. Right now we have a somewhat paradoxical problem—high rates of unemployment and high rates of job vacancies. Various theories attempt to explain this, many citing specific industries, like software engineering, tied to this paradox. What emerges is evidence that there are real deficits in skilled labor.

The U.S. is not alone: according to a European Commission report cited recently in the New York Times, by 2015 as many as 900,000 information and communication technology jobs may go unfilled in the European Union.

The challenge in emerging markets might be even more pronounced. According to one study from Aspiring Minds, 47% of Indian college graduates are deemed not employable by employers. We need a more agile, accessible education model that allows individuals to retool themselves and acquire skills necessary to compete in the current economy.

An urgent wake-up call

More and more people are waking up to the realization that they aren’t content with what they learned in school, and they cannot rely completely on their employers for ongoing education throughout their careers. Like Andy, they see the excitement of new career opportunities, but also the threat of falling behind if they don’t keep their skills current.

The hollowing out of the middle class is part of this dynamic. The adjusted median income of a full-time male worker with only a high school degree has fallen by 47% over the last 40 years. And the even growth of the earning gap between those with a high school degree and with a college degree has slowed over the last 10 years.

To get and stay ahead, individuals must take responsibility for their future with ongoing boosts of education. And new possibilities are emerging.

More accessible and dynamic learning options are opening up—there are a number of MOOCs; coding bootcamps like Dev Bootcamp; sites like Udemy, Code Academy, and Treehouse; and abundant content on YouTube EDU at your fingertips.

Informal education is becoming increasingly relevant for individuals seeking to differentiate themselves in the job market, advance at their companies, or pursue a new career path, and we’re already beginning to see that employers are paying attention.

Now, enabled by the very technologies that are accelerating change in the job market, Andy and an entire generation of workers are shaping a new reality for education, for credentials, and for lifelong learning in the real world. What this will look like in five years could be far different from where we stand now, at the crossroads between traditional foundations and alternative models.

For many students, the strong foundations of traditional education will not be enough to sustain their value in the job market forever, nor will it be feasible to go back to school full time. It is for these reasons that I am bullish on the possibilities for these new forms of education to provide individuals with the skills they need to breath new life into their careers, close the skills gap, and build a stronger economic future.

Julia Stiglitz is the Director of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships at Coursera.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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8 Comments

  • Chad Lovell says that we are near a tipping point - something very big very special is about to happen. I have theorized this in my book Education 2.0 (Paradigm, 2013).

    Dai Ellis asks Julia to move aggressively down market into vocational courses. Coursera has not done so because, according to Daphne Koller, it has wanted to draw on the expertise and authority of the University sector. Interestingly, both Udacity and edX have move away from that choice - drawing on non-university based partners for many courses.

    Dai Ellis might wish to consider the ALISON MOOC platform. This was the first MOOC platform - launching in 2007 - years before Dave Cormier invented the word MOOC. It offers 600 courses to 3 million students, and all of them are "aggressively downmarket" from Coursera.

    What we want in the MOOC space is diversity- of platforms, formats, missions, providers and targeted students as well as business models.

  • Thanks Julia -- totally agree that the arbitrary feast-then-famine approach to education we've had (gorge in college then on-your-own in the job market) isn't going to work longer run. And that online content can play a key role in ongoing learning once people are in the workforce.

    It would be great if Coursera and other content platforms would move more aggressively 'downmarket' into more basic professional skills and vocational courses. The starting point of partnering with universities doesn't seem to be leading to that quickly. Just as one example, I was trying to help my Year Up mentee find a cheap way to get really good online training to become a certified Salesforce.com Administrator -- wasn't finding anything.

  • Thanks for the article, Julia. I agree that many people are currently driven by the threat of falling behind if they don't keep their skills current.

    A key component to help people become the autonomous learners they need to be is software that helps them consume not only MOOCs but any educational resource, and which enables them to track their learning, save notes, set goals, motivate themselves, and in short, give them a structure which exists on top of all of the high quality, educational resources available on the Internet today.

    As a developer, I made such a personal tool for myself called The Learn Tracker where for 15 months now I have been watching and taking notes on one MOOC lecture per day from over 40 classes in three languages. http://tanguay.info/learntracker

    With tools such as this, any learning activity--MOOC, offline, or at work itself--is absorbed into one place which is always accessible to them as the learner continues their life-long learning journey.

  • Julia, this is a fantastic article and hits on so many of the underlying themes that our company is attacking. It seems that nearly every day we hear of more and more educational resources popping up not only online, but also in-person as well. We truly are in a renaissance of lifelong learning and ongoing personal development, but people need to know where to go to find all of these new resources and to sort through all of the new learning opportunities. The tipping point seems to be close for something very big and very special to happen.

  • Thank you for this article, and thank you for the service Coursera is providing. I am going long on your prediction that MOOCs can get me to the next level professionally. I learned so much about how to think and understand the world in both my undergraduate and graduate degree programs, but I certainly didn't predict what skills I would need/want most after a few years in the work force. I'm much more savvy now, but work experience is far more valuable to me than a third degree! Enter MOOCs. I'll be sure to let the world know where they take me.

  • Zachary Cunningham

    According to DegreeRegistry.org, a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree.

  • Zachary Cunningham

    According to DegreeRegistry.org, a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree.

  • Peter Wilkinson

    I'm with you Julia. Pity Coursera and other platforms weren't around when I made a career change from journalism to public relations 12 years ago - it would have changed the learning curve big time (yep, PR takes additional skills to journalism; and running a business/employing staff is a new experience completely). Having sold that (successful) business I'm taking 6 months out, tinkering with what to do next. So career mobility and the expanded horizons created by globalisation (including MOOCs) is just millennials - I'm 63 and a fan.