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Right before Labor Day weekend I shared a ramen-noodle lunch with Jeff Maggioncalda, the new CEO of online education firm Coursera, who gave me an interesting reason for why he took the job. The founding CEO of the original robo-advisor Financial Engines, Maggioncalda says he’d been midway through a mid-career semi-retirement when he read Tom Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late, which among other Friedmanesque very large thoughts stresses the importance of community and education as the savior of society. When a recruiter called about the top job at Coursera, a five-year-old startup and one of the original MOOC (massive open online course) companies, Maggioncalda saw an opportunity for “meaning.”
Coursera and its ilk—Udacity and Minera Project are two examples—are an appropriate topic of conversation on the day after Americans honor those who work. Coursera’s take is that higher education is too expensive and too airy-fairy to meet the needs of today’s students. What’s needed are specific classes that serve the needs of today’s students, like courses on how to code specific software languages and brand-new fields like machine learning and data science. Coursera also is working with individual employers like Google (GOOGL) to design classes that employees and developers need to succeed on their platforms.
Maggioncalda says Coursera isn’t only interested in offering these trade-oriented classes, but he may not have had time yet to survey all his firm’s offerings. I asked if I could take an introductory course on French, and he assured me I could. If there’s a French class offered at Coursera.org, I couldn’t find it.
Coursera is a big idea with a ton of funding, $200 million in all. I have no idea how Coursera is doing because Maggioncalda won’t say. (It is growing fast and is funded by luminaries like New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins, he points out; But “fast” is nearly meaningless, and the well-funded Juicero had impressive backers too, including Kleiner Perkins.)
Coursera sells access to groupings of courses it calls “specializations,” sold as a subscription for $49 a month. It also has created online degrees with prestigious universities, including a $20,000 MBA from the University of Illinois (my alma mater) that Maggioncalda says would cost $118,000 in person.
Companies like Coursera are great ideas that could fill a tremendous need. Whether or not they can become businesses is another matter.
I admired this article by Noam Scheiber in The New York Times, also a good Labor Day read, about how the Trump Administration is acting on its reverence for entrepreneurs by making concrete regulatory changes. Note this article’s dispassionate, analytical tone about an important subject. What you take away from it likely will depend on if you share the president’s high opinion of entrepreneurs.
Finally, just for fun, I thought you might like this piece about a local bookstore—and a really good one I visit regularly—that has survived for 50 years.