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Campus Technology Insider Podcast August 2021

Listen: The Future of Online Learning Is Flexible and Stackable

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, executive editor for Campus Technology, and your host.
Over the past few years, online learning in higher education has gone through a period of disruptive change. Not only did the pandemic trigger a massive shift from in-person classes to online, but it also brought new models of hybrid learning to the forefront. And micro-credentials, programs certifying specific competencies that can stand alone or be applied toward a larger degree, have gained momentum as learners have needed to reskill and compete in an evolving workforce. For this episode of the podcast, I talked with Dr. Betty Vandenbosch, chief content officer at Coursera, about the state of online education, the future of the traditional four-year degree, and what universities should be doing to keep up with alternative credential pathways. Here's our chat.  

Hi Betty, welcome to the podcast.

Betty Vandenbosch: Such a pleasure to be here, Rhea.

Kelly: I'd love for you to tell me about your role at Coursera. And what does it mean to be Chief Content Officer? And also, I know you have an extensive background in online education, so I'd love to hear all about that.

Vandenbosch: Well, Rhea, I have to tell you, it's kind of a comedy. I seem to keep getting jobs that nobody knows what that job is or does. Right now, I'm the chief content officer at Coursera. Who is the chief content officer, what do they do? Well, this is the best job on the planet. I have the distinct privilege to lead a group of folks who work to understand what the learners on our platform are looking for, and the best content that the partners on our platform have to offer them, and making sure that there's a match: that our partners are providing the content that they're most able to provide, and that our learners are getting everything that they need. That's really what my job is. So I work with partners, and we talk to learners and we make the connection. Why am I qualified to do that? Well, because I've had a lot of other jobs, where I did things that nobody knew what I was doing. I was the chancellor at Purdue University Global. Now in the education space, people know what a chancellor is. But I told my mother I was a chancellor, she wasn't really all that impressed. So as the chancellor, of course, at Purdue University Global, I oversaw the learning of 32,000 students who learned predominantly online. And Purdue University Global was the acquisition by Purdue University of Kaplan University. So we took Kaplan University over to Purdue Global, because Purdue University recognized that they needed to have more online education. So that's the transition there. But before that, I was a provost, another job that my mother doesn't understand. And of course, I've been a dean, and so on and so forth. So yes, I have a long academic background. And certainly for the last, easily the last 15 years, it's all been pretty much online.

Kelly: I think higher education has a lot of titles that people outside of higher ed maybe don't know what that means. So I want to talk about current events. You know, lately, I've been seeing new announcements from like UT Austin and others, that are announcing they're going remote for the first few weeks of the semester, despite, you know, all intentions to be in-person. And so I'm kind of feeling like it's an echo of this time last year, where we saw, you know, a massive pivot to online learning out of necessity. So I'm just wondering what your take is: Do you think we'll be seeing a lot of that kind of pivoting just across all kinds of institutions? And do you think institutions are more prepared for these sudden transitions, than they were last year?

Vandenbosch: Well, I can't say whether or not we're going to see more pivots. Because of course, that has much more to do with COVID and delta than it does with institutions. Are they prepared? That's really tough, because in April of 2020, nobody was prepared. And that forced adoption of emergency remote teaching really got people thinking. And the consequence of that is that many, many people are going to continue to want to learn online. But whether or not universities are going to want to continue to have everything online, again, Rhea, that depends a lot on what governments say and what university presidents say about the safety of students on campuses.

Kelly: Yeah, but I just wonder, you know, there are some aspects of this pivot online that seem like they could be a permanent change. Like, for example, is there really a reason to have, you know, a 700-person lecture class in person when you could just as easily deliver that content online? I don't know, do you think that there's going to be kind of a shift in the way institutions are approaching online learning for certain courses?

Vandenbosch: I think there absolutely is. The pandemic has fundamentally changed how universities are thinking about online. And, you know, many, many universities, many more than half are now reevaluating their online priorities. At the beginning of the pandemic, at Coursera we had 4,200 courses online, we had 19 degrees, 30 certificates. Just this past June, we had 5,500 courses, 31 degrees, 60 certificates, and we moved from 56 million learners to 87 million learners. Now, that's Coursera. But Coursera is its partners, and those partners are teaching all these students. I think what's happening is that as students got the taste for online learning, several trends are just going to stay, there's no question. People want convenience. And students for sure want a mix. If you're sitting in a classroom with 700 people, you're just as well off, in fact, probably better off if you're sitting on your bed in your dorm. So blended learning is going to happen. The other thing that I think the pandemic has raised, is that people need to work. And hiring is really, really important. And students are focused on getting jobs as much as they are on finishing their education. Now, that might not be the pandemic itself, but the pandemic made that even more important. Also, the pandemic showed people that they could learn for less. So affordability is getting increasingly important. And then, of course, there's faculty: More and more faculty are expecting to know what it takes to learn online, and they're learning. They're studying to become better online teachers. Because there's a big difference, of course, between emergency remote teaching, where you turn on a camera, and real online instruction, where there is design in the process and in the relationship between students and faculty.

Kelly: Yeah, I really am seeing a change in what students' expectations are for their education. I mean, flexibility certainly is a big one. Can you think of any other ways that maybe students are expecting to be able to engage differently online?

Vandenbosch: So, you know, we live with a generation of students who have grown up online. And this is not the first generation, but every generation has more and more access to online resources. And, you know, the sage on the stage just doesn't cut it any more. Students want simulations, they want projects, they want labs, they want to do things where they can experience, and they need to do those things online, because they're not going to be able to go to a wet lab necessarily, or a computer lab. We've got to help them and certainly technology is moving forward to enable that. And we're really focusing on that at Coursera to make sure that the online experience is one where students engage rather than just sit back and watch TV. Because that's kind of what emergency teaching is, right? Sitting back and watching TV. Now you can engage with your faculty member, but when you're in a Zoom or any kind of web environment where there are more than a dozen or 15 people, it's really hard to engage. So yeah, they want different ways of engaging with their material.

Kelly: Do you think the pandemic has changed the way students are engaging with Coursera courses in particular?

Vandenbosch: Absolutely. First of all, we have many, many more learners. You know, as I said, we went from 56 to 87 million learners in just over a year. The other thing that I think is really interesting is that the pandemic pointed to different ways and different needs for learning. Our number one course, during the pandemic, was The Science of Well-Being from Yale. And of course, when you think of how we all felt, you know, last year, getting a little more well-being was really, really important. So that's something that's personal development. Our second most important, not most important, but our second most popular course, was Contact Tracing. So that's also very understandable. And our third was Python for Everyone. So people are looking to Coursera, to online learning, to augment different parts of their lives. And I think that providing a platform that gives people those options is really, really important. The other thing that we saw is that more and more folks are thinking about careers. And they're taking a course on Coursera, or a program on Coursera, like the Google IT certificate, which is an introductory course that you learn how to become a help desk support person — fully a third of the people who are doing our degree in Computer Science at the University of London, started with that. So what Coursera is seeing is that our learners are stacking what they learn into the next level, the next level, the next level, into degrees and into much better jobs. So the concept is, somebody comes to Coursera and says, you know, I've been, I don't know, I've worked in retail, retail is terrible right now, I need something where I can get work very quickly. They go, they do the work, they get the certificate, they get a job. And then they realize, now I have the resources, and I have the interest, I can move on to a degree. So that's a new way of interacting with the Coursera platform that has happened much more in the last year than ever before.

Kelly: Yeah, that contact tracing course example, I think it really highlights how it's kind of a way to really rapidly respond to current events, you know, with your…

Vandenbosch: Yeah.

Kelly: … with your education. Interesting. Yeah, you know, you mentioned stackable credentials. And I I've been really seeing with companies like Coursera, and edX, now at 2U, you rarely hear these companies talk about MOOCs anymore. You know, it's all about micro degrees, professional certificate programs. Can you talk a little bit about that shift? And like, are MOOCs still a thing? Or is this sector of online education going elsewhere?

Vandenbosch: Well, MOOCs are still a thing. We at Coursera have more than 1,700 courses that are free, completely free. And we're very proud of that. Because our mission is to provide high-quality education to everyone. And certainly, most of our courses are also auditable. So anybody can take our courses and not have to pay. The paying happens if you want a, if you want a credential, a certificate of completion. But you can still do lots for free on Coursera. I think that that's really, really important. Because the decision to embrace education, to learn something new, to head for a new position, is a tough one. And how do you know that it's what you want, until you try it? I hearken back to my own background. I went to university right out of high school. And I took a computer science course, because I didn't know what else to take. And I thought, Oh my gosh, this is so great. This is so fun. And then I went through three years of computer science education, came out the other side and realized it wasn't that much fun at all. But there I was with a degree. And if you can try before you buy, you have the opportunity to see whether or not you're a good fit. You have the opportunity to explore a little bit. So we at Coursera really encourage our learners to try things out to see what makes sense. I think it's also really important to think about completion. You know, lots of folks complain, well, nobody ever finishes anything, and isn't that terrible, and people should finish their degrees. But really, the prize is you should have a career that you care about and that you love. And by trying things, and not having to make a three-year investment in order to try, I think that really is beneficial to learners. And it's so easy for us at Coursera to encourage, which is what we do.

Kelly: You know, years ago, we used to hear a lot about kind of DIY education, where you're putting together, you know, free resources, MOOCs, maybe community college courses, and just kind of getting what you need from different places and perhaps free or low-cost. Is that still a thing, do you think? Or do people really need more formalized, sort of, even if they're micro degrees, it's, you know, kind of like some sort of certificate program.

Vandenbosch: It's a great question. It's so hard to answer because it depends on the learner. There are people who can scrabble together, and they're brilliant, and going to university would be just such a waste of time for them. Of course, we have the famous examples in the technology world, I'm not going to say everybody's name, we all know. But for most of us, we're not disciplined enough and we're not focused enough to be able to do that in a way that will build and lead us to something that is a rewarding career. So, you know, I would not advise, and I didn't advise my child to just fiddle around and do what you like. However, once you're an adult, and once you have sort of made your way, and you want to make a change, trying different things is not a bad way to go. But that's not the same as your first credential. I really like what we're doing now with our micro-credentials. We have micro-credentials in introductory certificates. These introductory certificates help students get jobs, and then they stack into degrees. And that's the way to go for folks who can't take four years out of their lives because they can't afford to. You learn something, you are gainfully employed, you learn more, you learn more, and you keep growing — your learning and your education are growing side-by-side. To me, that's the way that things are moving forward. And certainly our learners are showing us that that's what they like as well. Last year, we had about 400,000 students in those kinds of courses in introductory certificates. And this year, we've already got more than a million.

Kelly: It's hard for me, because I'm the product of that four-year liberal arts education, you know, and it was such a time of like, personal growth. So I get nervous about prioritizing specific job skills over that sort of, you know, learning for the sake of learning. But of course, I know that that route of a traditional four-year university is obviously a privilege that's not available to every student. So do you think that micro-credentials, in the way you were describing them, is a solution to those kinds of issues of equity and access?

Vandenbosch: I think it's a really important start. I too, went straight to university, finished my degree, and it was fabulous. But as you say, it's a privilege. And it's a privilege in the United States and even more so in the rest of the world. And I think it's incumbent upon us to help people who don't have that privilege, to build enough knowledge to do something that they find meaningful, that's meaningful to them, get started, and then keep going. That, to me, is the way that we can provide access. It's not just a case of let's provide a scholarship and then this person can go to school for four years. All kinds of challenges with that approach, particularly for those millions and millions, in the United States, 37 million people started university and didn't finish. Those folks are not, a scholarship is not going to get them through school, right? They have to work, they have to, they have to keep moving forward in their lives. So, stacking, bits, that's the way forward, I think. And I don't think we should give up on liberal education. I'm very encouraged by the courses that people are taking on the Coursera platform, when they don't have to. Just this year, we had a huge explosion of a course called Indigenous Canada. And that course talked obviously about the indigenous peoples of Canada, and became very important to Canadians, because of the current news in Canada. That happens on Coursera all the time. And because we have such a broad catalog, over and over again, people come to us to look and say, Is there something here I can learn to help me with. You know, when the George Floyd — I don't even want to talk about it — when that all happened, people came to Coursera to see what was there. So people are learners, and they learn about racism, about equity, about religion on Coursera, as well as about getting those skills so they can get a job and move on to the next, to their careers. Both of those are important in the psyche of the human condition. Starting to get a little philosophical here, sorry about that.

Kelly: Yeah, no, I'm hearing, what I'm hearing is that it is possible to learn for the sake of learning on, you know, a platform like Coursera, or through these, through stackable, you know, micro-credentials. So what do you think universities should be doing to compete with or coexist with all these alternative credential pathways for students?

Vandenbosch: I think universities should embrace them. What we have found on Coursera, is because we have so many paths, and so many options, we are truly helping with access. During the pandemic, women learned more online. The share of all our course enrollments went from 38% to 45%. And in STEM, before the pandemic in 2019, 31% of our STEM courses were taken by women, and afterwards, it was 38%. The growth on Coursera is coming from the developing world. Our growth is huge in Africa, India, Latin America. Universities need to think about that and think, what can we do to make sure that our really important content gets to the world? And that's something that I think, not enough universities are thinking creatively about. Like, from my perspective, just come to Coursera, we'll help you come to the world. But I think what's really important is to think about, what is it that enables people to learn enough to move forward, and then learn some more and so on and so forth? And universities need to be creative. The degree is not dead, absolutely not. I would never recommend that a young person not get a degree. But at the same time, paths to degrees are growing increasingly flexible, and institutions need to become more flexible along with them.

Kelly: I think that's a great place to stop. Thank you so much for coming on.

Vandenbosch: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure Rhea. I've really enjoyed your questions. And it's made me think all over again, how happy I am to be doing what I'm doing.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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