Which Of The Following Might Be An Indirect Cost Of Online Learning For Institutions?

Although online education has seen explosive growth over the past decade, there’s still much more to be done in educating students online.

via Wikimedia Commons

Online course publishing juggernaut Coursera announced today that it has raised $75 million in a Series D round of funding, including a $51 million investment led by Advance Publications. Advance is a publishing conglomerate based in New York City that includes (among others) Condé Nast, Advance in the U.S., Advance Europe, Advance in Australia, and a slew of companies that tie to print magazines like New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. It’s a tiny percentage of the company’s sprawling business empire, but all indications are that Advance Publications is well aware of the opportunities online education presents for its various and sundry properties.

Coursera is not only the world’s largest ed-tech company, but the most successfully operated online course publishing platform. Which raises the question: The very existence of Coursera, and online learning more broadly, is causing institutions to take a serious look at these platforms as their own?

What can we tell from Coursera’s most recent investment? What initiatives might it be supporting that online learning platforms could be providing? Here are a few possibilities:

Institutions considering traditional course publishing platforms might assume that Coursera and peers, like edX and Udacity, also want to push books to students via digital platforms—just like if they were to go back and print copies of textbooks. But would many traditional course publishing platforms desire to displace copies of books produced by others?

Coursera is connected to more than 200 “higher education partners” that could be a boon to publishers, if they turned to Coursera for their online content. What different publishers could we expect to stream on Coursera and other platforms as authors (or in some cases, individual authors); for example, what other publisher might take advantage of Coursera’s massive reach? What roles might they play as providers of content and as distributors of content?

Maharaja Education (and the institution that owns it) is a leading “networked learning” for-profit educational institution that publishes relevant content to go with its online courses. What other education companies might prefer to publish content to Coursera as a means of generating book-like book sales?

Coursera will help realize many of the goals that institutions have for online-learning environments. Coursera’s online offering, which is a supplemental course to community college majors, costs just $90 per semester—cheaper than most online college degrees. Its platform is accessible via iPads, iPhones, and other mobile devices; students studying online also have access to the materials available in-person. Increasingly, online courses can help prepare students for rigorous, entry-level entry-level and non-entry-level science, technology, engineering, and math fields. And in collaboration with Udacity, Coursera publishes courses in the Java programming language—free, from start to finish. If Coursera and Udacity move forward on these goals, and publishing partner organizations like Maharaja and New Oriental Education and Technology Group take an increased role in these online efforts, then Coursera could drive a significant number of digital book sales to traditional publishing companies.

To be sure, this also raises a question: Will publishing partner companies be aligned with authors on these initiatives? Will they want to rewrite the publishing rights rules in order to partner with Coursera?

According to NinteryWorks, India’s largest digital and e-commerce firm, it’s already happened. In June, it introduced its Be Inspired Study Kit, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform, with partner Coursera. The company is eager to launch another set of courses this month—which will use Coursera’s platform—using the strategy described above.

Could the traditional publishing companies that had built their empire from physical book print sales be concerned by the mission of Coursera and others in this space? When the markets discover that publishing partner companies aren’t treating digital book publishing like the Trojan horse many online efforts promise them they’ll be hurt.

And what might those consequences be? Will digital books hurt physical book sales? How will impact newspapers that provide news content to traditional textbook publishers and institutions that produce print-ready content? As alternative education methods evolve, perhaps more traditional publishers should take heed of the disruptions they could face.

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