Do online courses deliver any career benefits? Coursera certainly thinks so

student computers classroom
College students studying at computers in classroom
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After making a splash a few years ago as a potential alternative to the traditional higher education model, startups offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are still trying to find their way. Are these platforms delivering anything of use to learners? And if so, who is benefiting most? On Tuesday, Coursera, the three year-old online learning platform, released data showing that those who complete their courses are seeing benefits on the job.

Coursera, along with the University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington, surveyed 52,000 people who completed its courses. Of those who responded, 72% took online courses to advance their careers. And 87% of that group reported that they experienced some kind of career benefit from taking those courses, including feeling better equipped for a current job or improved candidacy for a new job; 33% reported tangible career benefits, including a pay raise, promotion, a new job, or starting a new business.

“Tangible benefits are reported at an even higher rate among learners from emerging economies, in lower SES [socioeconomic status] brackets, and from other non-traditional education backgrounds, signaling that MOOCs are able to help those with great need,” says Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera.


The report only surveyed Coursera users who had completed courses. MOOC providers, including Coursera, have taken heat for their high attrition rates. Coursera boasts 15 million registered learners worldwide, but only about 2.5 million of those students have ever completed a single course on the site. A 2013 study found that only 4% completed Coursera’s classes. (Koller says that’s because Coursera’s model encourages users to “shop around” until they find a class they like.)

Koller claims the new data refutes the long-standing criticism that Coursera primarily serves well-educated working professionals. Indeed, 83% of those who participated in the company’s study had a college degree or higher, and only 11% of respondents finished their formal education at high school or had only completed some college. At the same time, 42% of emerging market respondents without a bachelor’s degree and 39% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds reported receiving tangible career benefits from Coursera courses. Meanwhile, 35% among both the more educated and the wealthier groups of survey respondents said they received similar benefits.

Koller says it’s important that Coursera reach learners from a lower socioeconomic status—presumably those without post-secondary degrees—since they are more likely to reap educational benefits from taking online courses. For instance, she noted that learners in emerging markets who are not accepted into a top university in their home country have fewer options to receive high-quality education outside of online providers. MOOCs can potentially fill that gap. But it’s still a work in progress.

Koller says the study’s results illustrate the platform’s promise for disadvantaged learners, especially those in emerging markets. Coursera is planning to launch courses in more languages and increase its mobile capabilities since many people in emerging markets only access the Internet via smartphone. About 48% of Coursera’s total registered user base is from emerging markets, with China in the lead, followed by India and Brazil. It offers 1,000 courses total in 35 languages.

The startup announced in August that it had raised $49.5 million, which will help fund its international growth as well its expanding specializations model, which bundles several courses together based on a single theme and charges users a fee for a certificate of completion. And the company has partnered with companies like Google and Instagram to create capstone projects for its specialization series.

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