From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, December 5,
Providers of Free MOOC's Now Charge Employers for Access to
By Jeffrey R. Young
Providers of free online courses are officially in the headhunting
business, bringing in revenue by selling to employers information
about high-performing students who might be a good fit for open
On Tuesday, Coursera, which works with high-profile colleges to
provide massive open online courses, or MOOC's, announced its
employee-matching service, called Coursera Career Services. Some
high-profile tech companies have already signed up-including
Facebook and Twitter, according to a post on Coursera's blog, though
officials would not disclose how much employers pay for the service.
Only students who opt into the service will be included in the system
that participating employers see, a detail stressed in an e-mail
message that Coursera sent to its nearly two million past or present
students on Tuesday.
Each college offering a course through Coursera is also given the
chance to opt out of the service-meaning that if a college declines,
then no students in its courses can participate in the matchmaking
"Some universities are still thinking it through, so not all
have said yes," Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said in an
interview on Tuesday. "I don't think anyone said, 'No now and no
future,'" he added. "This is a relatively
uncontroversial business model that most of our university partners
are excited about."
Udacity, another company that provides free online courses, offers a
similar service. Udacity works directly with professors to offer
courses, rather than signing agreements with colleges.
Udacity's founder, Sebastian Thrun, said in an interview that 350
partner companies had signed up for its job program. While Mr. Thrun
would not say how much employers pay, he characterized the fee as
"significantly less than you'd pay for a headhunter, but
significantly more than what you'd pay for access to LinkedIn," a
popular social network for job hunters.
"We're more like a headhunter," said Mr. Thrun. "We go
through our database and find people that seem to be good matches for
the openings from these companies." Udacity says companies using
its job-matching program include Google, Amazon, Facebook, and several
In the case of one computer-science course offered through Udacity,
the online students took the same quizzes and tests as a group of
students enrolled at Stanford University at the same time. The top 411
students all came from the thousands of students who took the course
online, with the strongest-performing Stanford student ranking 412th
in the final standings, said Mr. Thrun. (That Stanford student earned
a 98-percent score in the course.)
"There are a huge number of people out there who are extremely
skilled but happen not to have the Stanford degree," said Mr.
How the Coursera Model Works
Coursera said that it had been quietly testing its career-services
system for a few months, but that it was in place only for courses in
software engineering. Other disciplines will be coming soon, though
Mr. Ng would not say when.
Here's how it works: A participating employer is given a list of
students who meet its requirements, usually the best-performing
students in a certain geographic area. If the company is interested in
one of those students, then Coursera sends an e-mail to the student
asking whether he or she would be interested in being introduced to
that company. The company pays a flat fee to Coursera for each
introduction, and the college offering the course gets a percentage of
that revenue, typically between 6 and 15 percent.
Mr. Ng noted that Coursera might try other types of matchmaking
arrangements in the future, depending on how well the current model
works for students and employers.
"Today everyone has access to an infinite source of résumés,
so it's a time-management issue," said Mr. Ng. "The question
is how many résumés you need to read to find a candidate you'd
like to speak with. Students who complete and do well in [Coursera]
classes have a very high chance of being interesting to
Dawn Smith is one student who found a job with the help of a Coursera
course, though she did so before the company set up its matchmaking
service. Ms. Smith wanted to change careers, so she took a
pharmacology course offered through Coursera by a University of
Pennsylvania professor. She completed the course-meaning she scored
at least 90 percent on homework and examinations-and got a
certificate, which she listed on her résumé. And she mentioned the
achievement during a recent interview with the University of Illinois
Hospital and Health Sciences System Cancer Center, which ended up
hiring her for a job in communications.
"It sort of showed the initiative of wanting to continue my
education," she said.
She said that she would sign up for Coursera's new career services if
she was looking for a job, but only if she knew that she was going to
devote time to the class and had a good chance of doing well.
"The biggest question mark," she said, "is if I do take
up that offer and I found myself not able to complete this, how will
that reflect to a potential employer?"
With that type of reluctance in mind, Coursera gives students the
option to show employers information about them only if they complete
a given course.
One Udacity student, Tamir Duberstein, said that company's job program
had helped him land a gig at Square, a trendy company that lets
consumers submit credit-card payments using smartphones and tablet
computers. He was living in Toronto, working at a job he didn't enjoy,
when he took a series of computer-programming courses from Udacity,
spending nearly all of his free time on them. "I got the best
possible result in a few of them," he said.
One day this past summer, Udacity sent him an e-mail asking whether
he'd be interested in sending in his résumé as part of its job
service. "Once your résumé is received, it will be
prescreened and possibly shared with a few selected employers with
your permission," the message said.
He sent his in, but didn't expect much. "I was like, What the
hell, sure, why not?," he remembers.
A few weeks later, he heard first from one tech company and then from
Mr. Duberstein said that the job-interview process included plenty of
technical questions asking him to prove he had the skills that he had
learned in the Udacity courses. "The point here is not
credentialing," he said. "They quizzed me. They really were
assessing what I know for themselves."
Both Coursera and Udacity show employers more than just student
grades. They also highlight students who frequently help others in
Mr. Thrun, of Udacity, said those "softer skills" are often
more useful to employers than raw academic performance.
"Problems are never solved in isolation in the real world,"
he said. He said that Udacity might share with an employer someone who
has helped 90 to 100 people in discussion forums. "That specific
skill has been a better predictor of placement success than academic
performance," he added.
Mr. Ng, of Coursera, reported a similar trend. And frequently the
top-performing students also post the most valuable comments in
student forums, as counted by how many students "vote up" a
comment, or signal that it was helpful by clicking a thumbs-up button.
"Students in the top 10 percent had twice as many up-voted posts
in the student forums as the students not in the top 10 percent,"
Coursera has already made its first introductions, though it has not
stated how many, or whether any led to a job.
Mr. Ng said that the largest source of revenue will probably come from
selling certificates, rather than such matching. So far the company
has not charged for certificates, but it plans to start doing so in
the coming months.
SIDEBAR: Students and universities can opt out of
Coursera's new employee-matching service. Andrew Ng, one of the
founders of the company, describes the program as "a relatively
uncontroversial business model that most of our university partners
are excited about." Jemal Countess, Getty Images
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
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Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
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