Venturing into corporate training arena: a game changer for MOOC players?

To be appropriate for corporate training use, MOOC players need to identify MOOCs that both they and their supplying institutions are able to re-purpose for corporate learning and market just these.

Asking corporate training practitioners to accept the academic MOOCs as the basis for their corporate learning programs is like trying to put a square peg through a round hole.

Just two months short of three years back, I wrote about creating tangible revenue channels for Massive Open Online Courses providers. I gave a few suggestions about how MOOCs players can generate revenue in articles I wrote on MOOC which were published even earlier.

Udacity, one of the three pioneer MOOC players(and the three largest players) , departed from the “fully free” model in 2014 and announced its highly successful “nanodegree” programs. The success formula of Udacity, the platform built by the father of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun, is relatively straightforward: provide what industries need. Instead of being the “Jack of All trades” of MOOCs, Thrun steered Udacity towards providing for the technology companies which collectively have the most ferocious “appetite” for tech-savvy workers with Udacity serving as the “supplier” by training and job-guaranteeing pledge to all takers of its nanodegrees.

By focusing on the area of MOOCs that Udacity has an edge, that is the “tech” area, and linking up with high profile “tech” players like Google, BOSCH, Facebook, Amazon, AT&T etc., Udacity has been successful in attracting learners who have been willing to pay the fees (which is still modest in many ways) to get the knowledge and get certified by Udacity with a promise of jobs at the end of the training or “half your money back” guarantee by Udacity.

It is therefore not surprising that just over a year after the launch of nanodegrees, Udacity was able to announced to the world that it was the first MOOC player to show profit in August 2015.


In the meantime, the other MOOC players like Coursera, edX and Futurelearn have been relying solely on charging for certification as the main revenue stream. Concurrently, there are increasingly many smaller players which have “pay to learn” model like Udemy which provide many shorter courses and at pricing that are more attractive. Charging companies for access to MOOC students’ data as announced in 2012 seemed not to bear much fruit. This is not surprising with privacy protection being so prominent these days!

Recently, this author stumbled upon Coursera’s latest business model, aptly named, “Coursera for Business” (CFB) which was launched in August 2016. The Enterprise version of Coursera provided for co-branding of learning and certification as well as an attractive suite of packages for businesses of different sizes.


While it is still early days to judge the success or otherwise of Coursera’s model at this stage (at the time of writing, late April 2017, Coursera for Business is only eight months old), this author has done an evaluation on CFB based on what he has learned about Udacity’s nanodegrees and his being a “veteran” of over 35 MOOCs successfully completed.

Nevertheless, like Udacity, Coursera was able to rope in some big names from industry to be CFB’s pioneer clients, such as AirFrance, KLM, PayPal, Axis Bank, InGram, VIPKID, BCG, telenor, and L’Oréal.

On the “supply side”, blue-chip universities such as: null

have been recruited to provide the necessary MOOCs that Coursera’s clients required. CFB boasts 1,800 MOOCs etc. as shown in below:


The billion US$ dollar question is this: Will these two seemingly ‘Udacity-like” features of CFB (having blue-chip clients and universities) again do the mojo for Coursera as they did for Udacity?

This author will provide a ‘cautious YES” to CFB which, as he had suggested in October 2013 for MOOC players to tap a lucrative revenue channel by moving to the corporate learning segment. To be successful like Udacity’s nanodegrees, Coursera perhaps need to consider the followings:

  1. Udacity’s nanodegrees are very industry and skills focused which Udacity has deliberately targeted at the arena that it has an edge: the “tech” sector. Thus by specializing, Udacity created its niche in the MOOC arena which is difficult for other players to steal a slice of its cake. Coursera on the other hand, is a “Jack of All Trades”. It’s portfolio of MOOCs cover a very broad area. It has made the mistake of putting all its 1,800 MOOCs on the table.
    nullIt is not possible for Coursera or rather its “supplier institutions” to be best in all of the study areas. More important, it is impossible to expect company learning departments to check through all 1,800 MOOCs to identify the ones that they want, which will be different for different industries. Not all 1,800 MOOCs are compatible with corporate learning needs of the prospective clients.
  2. Academic courses, especially those that involve abstract thinking and not skill-based are notoriously difficult to adapt to corporate training norm. Academic assessment items are often too “academic” for many to be applied in the corporate training sphere. Similarly, the bulk of Coursera courses are at least four weeks in duration. Unless a systematic system of classifying and structuring MOOCs is applied to Coursera’s plethora of MOOCs to make sure that there is a common measure of “one learning unit” that is say, four hours of learning time in length, it is not really practical to “mix and match” or personalize the learning as required by sponsors or even the individual learners. It is a double-edged sword. If rigidity in this sort of structuring of MOOCs is applied, there will be “academic freedom” issue with the academic staff powering the MOOCs. However it is still not too late for Coursera to, for those MOOCs to be placed under CFB, to be compliant with a new “learning unit” measure.

This author suggests that CFB be more narrow focused (Udacity’s model is proven in this aspect). Instead of 1,800 MOOCs, , Coursera perhaps could identify MOOCs that both it and the supplying institutions are able to re-purpose for corporate learning and market just these.

Asking corporate training practitioners to accept the current Coursera’s academic MOOCs as the basis for their corporate learning programs is like trying to put a square peg through a round hole.


Unknown to this author, while he was preparing and researching for this article, edX announced the launching of 15 Professional Certificate programs on Apr 25, 2017 (about 2 days before this article was first published, after adjusting for the time difference).

edX which has, for a long while branded some of its more prestigious or better participated MOOCs into a “Xseries”. It has been marketing verified certification for individual MOOCs as well as a series of MOOCs (as in XSeries). Many of the “Xseries” courses are in fact not in the “free to learn” category. Then in September 2016, it had packaged some of the MOOCs into Micromasters which essentially gain learners academic credits if they have taken verified certification where many of the MOOCs under Micromasters still are available on the audit mode (aka “free to learn”). To complete a Micromaster, one would need to take all the prescribed MOOCs which collectively could take at least 6 months. The Professional Certificate from edX is a stripped down version of the Micromaster which would take learners about 2 months to complete. 

Of  the 15 Professional Certificate programs, it is interesting to notice edX at least value the flexibility that “self-paced” MOOCs confer. Most of the 15 are indeed delivered in self-paced mode with a few still sticking to the “set timing” as before. Most also provide a “free to learn” option but notably the more business and management oriented ones are strictly fees-based such as those offered by New York Institute of Finance and Wharton.

edX’s latest offerings are still very academic-based and are mainly repackaging current entire MOOCs into different badges. It does not have the mix-and-match, small learning units (to allow for the mix-and-match) etc. mentioned by this author in the article above. The fact that more and more self-paced MOOCs are being offered does go some way to provide for the flexibility of starting that is lacking in many MOOCs. 

Nevertheless this is a first step in the right direction for edX, but this author would have liked to see an offer of a program that comprises of a mix-and-match of components of MOOCs from different institutions which is what MOOCs, if designed in “standard” learning units would have allowed!  This way, edX will be in the best position to customize the MOOCs (and components of individual MOOCs) to suit the needs of the market. It would be interesting, if this should happen, to see which institution will be offering the certification! Or perhaps it would be kind of joint certification by key employers, the institutions contributing the elements to their MOOCs to the program and edX?

Creating tangible value from MOOCs?

Since the pioneers of the MOOC movement have been the US universities, it is understandable for the World to expect some sort of leadership in this field from these pioneers. One thing that have been missing from most of these players is indeed a credible business model, without which MOOCs may not be sustainable.

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Since the pioneers of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) movement have been the US universities, it is understandable for the World to expect some sort of leadership in this field from these pioneers.

One thing that have been missing from most of these players is indeed a credible business model. Along the way, both Coursera and Udacity have introduced “premium” assessment model whereby the identity of the MOOC learner is verified (in Udacity’s case, it even have an online proctored examination system) and hence the academic credit earned will be acceptable to some institutions. My son took an introductory statistics course from Udacity and under “ProctorU”  (an online proctored examination service company) his credit, granted by St. Jose State University should be acceptable to his US university. The fees for this was US$150.  However all these add-on services are not paying the bills for these players. For the massiveness of its enrollment, MOOCs only have completion rates of about 7%, and even lower percentage of these learners would be “buying” the premium services.

I have mentioned in my previous article on MOOC that there are several ways that the MOOC players can generate income streams. In fact a recent report stated that one of the income streams (as I have mentioned) is indeed the recruitment of students to the universities associated with one of the MOOC players. 2 years ago I mooted the idea of MOOC to some for-profit higher education providers in Malaysia, but none managed to see beyond the trees to the positive branding effects of MOOC. Perhaps now with this article they should say, “We should have listened to that fellow”!!

I do not think that this revenue stream will be large, but I think the branding effect of successful MOOCs are great for the providing institutions. Whether this will end up in positive foreign student recruitment (which is a very complicated and complex affair) and how the MOOC players are paid for the recruitment is a different matter (will it be cost-per-click through or full fledged recruitment services?).

I think there is one element that none of the big MOOC player:s have explored: the corporate training domain. Although Udacity’s “nanodegree” is a good initiative that plots a MOOC course-learning path for learners. If they complete the suite of Udacity’s MOOCs successfully, this will put them in a position of advantage with skill-sets that employers (who have collaborated with Udacity)  want. This model is still sticking to mainly academic learning mixed with professional-skills courses. In fact many of the existing MOOCs have elements of learning that can be easily re-purposed for corporate learning and training usage. These learning courseware and delivery system are the key to creating a recurring revenue stream for the MOOC players. If the learning outcomes of these can be pegged with college credits or “star employers” acceptance as in the case of nanodegree of Udacity, I think the corporate learning providers out there will be able to sell these to their clients and learners easily.

With more and more smaller MOOC players with varying degree of quality coming on stream these days, I feel that some sort of consolidation will have to take place soon, especially with the current lack of any profitable business models.

(This article is contributed by Dr. YN Chow)