Coursera CEO on pivoting company amid pandemic headwinds

Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita to discuss how the online learning platform is naviagting the changing landscape of higher education amid COVID-19.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: It has been a rocky start to the school year for many universities and colleges across the country as they struggle to balance the safety of students with in-person classes. A majority of schools now opting for remote learning, and that has been a big boom for online learning platform Coursera. The company announcing some new services today to help universities navigate this transition to digital.

Let's bring in Jeff Maggioncalda, he is the CEO of Coursera. And Jeff, it's always good to talk to you. I'm going to get to those announcements in just a bit, but I'd love to just get your take on where things stand in terms of universities and colleges right now. I know you're in constant conversation with them, and we have seen those reports over the last month of the uptick in COVID cases leading to increasingly remote learning.

JEFF MAGGIONCALDA: Yeah, you know, it's been fascinating. We got our first call from one of our partners, Duke University. They have a joint venture with Wuhan University, and they have a campus in Kunshan, China. On January 27, they called and said, we've just been quarantined, students and faculty, we would love to have all 4,000 courses on Coursera for campus for free to help our students continue learning. We said, that's great. We got our partners together, we said that's great.

Well, as of April 20 of 2020, the pandemic had gone from a small tightly controlled area in China to most of the world. 1.6 billion students saw their schools closed. This is nine out of every 10 students in the world. The first reaction of higher ed was like, put Zoom camera on, and let's just figure out how to get through the semester. Now what we've seen, I think, is people really looking a little bit further out and saying, this will always now be a part of higher education. Digital transformation is upon us, and now they're looking for long term scalable ways of integrating online learning into higher education generally.

AKIKO FUJITA: What about some of these universities that are still offering in person classes? I mean, just given the kind of spreader events we've already seen on campuses across the country, I mean, it would seem like a no brainer for a lot of these universities to just say, look, we're moving online just for precautions here. What's the conversation there, and why do you think you're still continuing to operate in person?

JEFF MAGGIONCALDA: I think it's a mixed bag. There are definitely many schools who have put together excellent testing. They have a student body that is more contained on campus, and generally speaking, they've kind of closed the right courses. So one of things you just don't really see anywhere in the world right now are lecture halls. Well, they're empty. Getting 300 students inside of a closed building for two hours where all that's happening is a professor is broadcasting to the students, that's not worth it. All of that is moving online.

But we have seen, I mean, to some degree it's mixed. With returning to parties and with bars, anytime you're in close quarters-- the other thing too is if there's loud noise, the students will be right up in each other's faces. So loud indoor parties, that's a real problem. But frankly, many universities have been able to manage the contagion pretty well, and they are still, though, blending online and on campus learning together.

AKIKO FUJITA: So let's talk about what that has meant for Coursera. It's been a year since you launched Coursera for Campus, but you really kind of went into hyper growth mode in March when you started offering that out to universities who are struggling to continue to operate in the face of the pandemic. Today, you're announcing these academic integrity tools, as you call it. Why is that the next step, and what specifically does that mean in terms of how universities partner with Coursera?

JEFF MAGGIONCALDA: Well, it has been a really incredible period of growth and stress for the world. And frankly, we've been pretty busy too. We had 30 customers using Coursera for Campus in February of 2020. Within seven months, that's gone to 3,700 different universities who've launched 11,000 different instances of Coursera for Campus for 2.4 million students who've taken in the last seven months 21 million free courses. So we offered this free program between March 12 and September 30. Our University partners who have the content on Coursera, I think very generously said, we want to come to the aid of our fellow educators.

What we're announcing today is basically two things. One is a permanent free program. We're calling it Coursera for Campus Basic Plan so that universities can continue to use Coursera for Campus but in a little bit more limited fashion, but in order to experiment and teach professors how they might incorporate online learning. And then, like you said, academic integrity. This basically means helping to prevent cheating. Many universities around the world are realizing that online learning is going to be a key part of higher education that they don't have the time immediately to build all the courses themselves, so they're turning to our partners courses on Coursera. This is Stanford and Duke and Princeton and Yale, University of Michigan, Imperial College of London, some really fine institutions with great content, and what we've done is we've implemented a number of features that help prevent cheating so that universities can offer this type of content for credit.

AKIKO FUJITA: How do you do that? How do you prevent cheating in an online environment?

JEFF MAGGIONCALDA: There's a number of things. There's one thing called plagiarism detection and plagiarism deterrents, so there's one company called Turnitin. They're a great company. What they do is they have a massive database of almost all student assignments that have been submitted, and they basically use machine learning to do similarity comparisons between something that a student is submitting and something in their entire database. And so what deflection means is even before the student submits it, they see a similarity score that says, hey, by the way, did you know that what you're about to submit looks a lot like something that someone has already submitted? So that's all around plagiarism detection and deterrence.

On proctoring, that's basically someone watching over the student while they're taking an exam. And so that's really can be electronic or can be human. ProctorU is a company that we've integrated for the proctoring, and there's a range of different services there. We've also introduced timed tests so that tests can open and close at a certain time. We've also introduced private assessment authoring so that a university can use an existing course on Coursera but author their own private assessment that nobody else can see, so these are all some of the features that we're announcing today.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Jeff, you know, when you look at how Coursera has grown throughout this pandemic, you've really been operating on two tracks here. On the one hand, servicing the universities you've talked about to help them transition into more remote learning, but also helping those who are unemployed trying to upskill or find those skills that are in demand right now. How much progress are you making on that front, and are there still companies that are hiring right now that need the skills that are in the markets from those who have become unemployed as a result of this economic downturn?

JEFF MAGGIONCALDA: Yeah, we launched the workforce recovery initiative in May. We knew that the first major phase of coronavirus was going to be flattening the curve and trying to ensure care capacity. We knew that the next major piece was going to be broad scale global campus shutdowns. We figured that the third major piece was going to be unemployment. The fourth stage will be reskilling.

What we're trying to do is to work with national, state and local governments to offer free online, we call it Coursera for Government, online courses that our partners, again have generously said, for unemployed people anywhere in the world throughout the rest of 2020, let's give the government agencies that do workforce development the ability to upskill and reskill these folks in many different disciplines. Our mainstay program has been the Google IT Support Certificate. It teaches someone without a college degree and no background in the field how to become an entry level IT support professional.

But since then, we've grown the portfolio to include three courses from IBM for cybersecurity analysts, data analysts. We have three more certs from Google on UX design and data analyst and software engineering. We just launched a certificate with Facebook on social media marketing with Salesforce on sales development representatives. There are many entry level digital roles that don't require a college degree, you can learn the skills online, and that's going to be the essence of reskilling.