The Rant

Upskilling America - A Conversation with Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO at Coursera

October 17, 2023 Eloy Oakley/Jeff Maggioncalda Season 2 Episode 5
The Rant
Upskilling America - A Conversation with Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO at Coursera
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I talk with Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO at Coursera. Coursera is one of the pioneers of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) movement and is now a publicly traded company valued at more than $2 billion. I talk with Jeff about the history of the company, who it is serving and how he and his team are incorporating GAI into their course offerings. Coursera is reaching working learners all over the world and is a key education provider that employers turn to for their workforce needs.

Eloy:

Hi, I'm Eloy Ortiz Oakley, and welcome back to the rant. The podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, I get to talk with Jeff Mein Calta, the C e O of Coursera. Coursera is one of the trailblazers of the massive open online course movement, otherwise known as MOOCs, and it has evolved into one of the world's. Largest learning platforms, offering more than 4,000 courses. We will discuss Coursera's roots, its evolution, and how it's harnessing the power of generative ai. So Jeff, welcome to the Ran.

Jeff:

Hey, it's great to be here, Eloy. Thank you so much for having me.

Eloy:

Absolutely. Well, it's great to have you on the podcast, Jeff, and appreciate you taking the time. Now, you've been leading Coursera since 2017 and you've seen many changes along the way, changes in the company, changes in the MOOC universe and the movement. However, before we get into all of that, I'd love to just spend a little bit of time. Getting to know you better and making sure that our listeners get to know you. So tell us a little bit about your higher education journey and what led you to this leadership role at Coursera.

Jeff:

Well, thanks. I grew up in California and ended up going to Stanford as an undergrad. I always loved English and so I was an English major and my dad my freshman year said, you know, Jeff, I. I'm not paying for Stanford. If you get an English degree, that's not gonna make you any money. And, uh, I was, I was like a semi rebel, so I thought, all right, I'll, I'll give my dad what he wants. But I decided I was still gonna be an English major and I double majored in quantitative economics and English. So I, I did a little bit of the right side of the brain and a little bit of the, uh, left side of the brain. So I, was at Stanford,

Eloy:

Well, have, I have two English majors of my kids, so there's hope for them.

Jeff:

Absolutely. Well tell'em they should also do something in economics or computer programming. so I did that. I worked at a litigation consulting firm for a few years, doing like statistical and financial analysis for business litigation. And then I went back to the Stanford Business School and got an M B A. I was planning to go to McKinsey and then I got this incredible, I mean, literally once in a lifetime opportunity where, one of the professors at Stanford, bill Sharp, who's a Nobel Nobel president in economics, he said, Hey, I wanna start a tech company. This was in 1996. the internet was just starting and he said, I wanna basically do investment advice for 4 0 1 k participants. Do you wanna write a business plan and try to get it, get it funded? So I was the first employee. Financial engines back in 1996,

Eloy:

Uhhuh.

Jeff:

I was a c e O there for 18 years. I, we tried so many ways to build a successful company and like on our fifth try, we, it finally clicked and we found something that people really wanted and it ended up going public and it was, it turned out to be a great success. but not after years and years of work and pivoting and nearly losing my job multiple times. and then I took a, a few years off, and then I got a kind of a second in a lifetime opportunity, I guess, because another pair of Stanford professors this time at Coursera said, Hey, we're looking for a c e O. Would you be interested in applying? And, and I, I fell in love with the idea and I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have been given the opportunity.

Eloy:

Wow. Well, that's a, that's a great story. and, it seemed like all roads kept leading back to, to Stanford for you.

Jeff:

It, it seems that way. Uh, right now, you know, I'm in Palo Alto. I, I live five. Yeah, it's good weather out here.

Eloy:

Yes. So let's talk about Coursera. and you know, you may know this, but when I was president of Long Beach City College, I, I had the opportunity and, and the privilege to host a meeting of the California Little Hoover Commission. At that time, there was a lot of interest in the MOOC movement and some of the stuff that was happening. throughout California and so way back in February of 2013, we hosted the little Hoover Commission on campus at Long Beach City College and testifying at that meeting where Sebastian th Thune from Udacity and, and Daphne Kohler, the co-founder

Jeff:

gosh. What're a trailblazer. That was very.

Eloy:

that was the beginning and it was such a fun and interesting, hearing. and of course some of the things that, uh, Daphne and Sebastian were talking about have come to fruition. Some things have. Still evolving, but nonetheless, for, for folks who, who are interested in, in a retrospective of, uh, the early days of the MOOC movement, that is such an interesting, hearing that people can find it on YouTube still if they're interested. Let me, let me turn back, to you and Coursera. So, a lot has happened since February of 2013. tell us about Coursera today. How has the company evolved and, and, and who are the learners that you're serving today? I,

Jeff:

well it's, it certainly has changed, but you know, some of the things are still fundamentally the same. I. What is the same is the underpinnings of the promise, which is that high quality education using technology can be made available to everyone. And, we'll probably talk about ai, but, but many technologies including, including mobile phones, including five G, including ai, are increasing in many ways the accessibility of education and the effectiveness of education. So I think, you know, some things are the same, which is, That kind of open access, online to, to great educators. And then I think it's enhanced and the business is enhanced too. We started, as you remember, back in the early days, it was sort of open courses being delivered directly to individuals on the internet. And that was it. It moved, you know, massively open online courses. that went along for quite some time and it was just universities doing it. The, the a a first extension was not just the founding U started in universities, which was like Stanford and Yale and, and Michigan and Penn, I think. but then more universities started publishing courses. Universities outside of the US started publishing courses, and then we had industry start publishing courses. This is in the 20, probably 2017 time period, maybe 2020. Maybe before that 2016. so yeah, so we started having universities and industry creating courses. then another major innovation was, and this was under Rick Levin, who, who preceded me as c e o, they started offering Coursera not only directly to individuals, but also to institutions, uh, first to businesses through Coursera for business. Where businesses were looking to upskill and re-skill their employees and they couldn't send them all back to college. you know, turns out working adults have jobs and often have, and they can't just show up on campus. so the flexibility of online learning and the breadth of content, especially in data science, computer science, very, appealing to companies. A year later, in 2017, we launched Coursera for government. And then in 2019, October, just a few months before the pandemic, we launched Coursera for campus. And this is a version of Coursera for colleges and universities that wanna subscribe to these online courses and build the courses into the curriculum. And so it turned out to be pretty good timing because you know, a few months later, basically every single university and school in the world closed 1.6. Billions students were out of, uh, couldn't go to a class. And so, you know, many of them started learning online. So those are some of the big in innovations. And I'd say that, a couple of other quick ones are, Number one, using, these open courses as part of degree programs. So now there's many degrees that are built on MOOCs with their, you know, they're fully accredited degrees from University of Pennsylvania, university of Michigan, imper College of London, you know, all kinds of great schools. And then on the industry side, they've kind of expanded as well, not just a mooc. A series of MOOCs in what we call professional certificates. These are job training programs that are created by Google and Microsoft and I B M and, and Amazon and others. it's definitely, it's, it's definitely expanded.

Eloy:

Well, a lot has been happening. we've heard a lot about the importance of reskilling and upskilling in the American workforce, and you just touched on some of the work that you're doing, but how, how can cross-sector collaboration contribute? To the reskilling revolution and and effectively address the supply side challenges. What, what crucial role do employees play in supporting workforce reskilling and upskilling efforts?'cause this is certainly something that a lot of different organizations and agencies are thinking about as, the economy and the workforce continues to change.

Jeff:

it really is a, an ecosystem of collaboration that's gonna be required. I mean, just governments can't really do it on their own, just universities can't do on their own. It's. Collaboration among the big stakeholders. so when you, when we have, 300 universities and industry, uh, partners creating, there's about 6,000 courses now. these institutions that author on Coursera come from around the world. So both in industry and universities, we have a hundred and about 130 million individual learners all around the world. And so, you know, we have. Broad constituent of learns from different countries, different backgrounds, different genders, et cetera, et cetera. And they're coming to Coursera mostly to advance their careers, but you know, different types of careers. But especially when we started doing Coursera for business, government and campus, things got interesting. and what we find is this, I mean, they each have different roles to play. Generally speaking, the business is kind of at the center because the business creates the jobs and most adult learners, Are interested in getting a job. So they're thinking, well, what do I need to learn to get a job that pays better and and maybe has more flexibility? So the visibility with the employers and what they need. What positions do they need filled and what skills do they need people to have, and what knowledge and abilities and mindsets. That's kind of a, to some degree, the first mover because that's what learners come for. But then you say, well, the, the educators clearly play a big role because they have to create the material to create those skills and that knowledge, and they don't always have a good connection, the educators and the employers so that the educators know, you know, what are employers looking for and things are changing quickly. So how can you keep up with that? So the educators, have a, a big role to play. And then finally, there's government, at least finally in, in our model of kind of institutional ecosystem. There's the government where the government plays a number of different roles. A lot of it's identifying populations who need better access, and a lot of it is the funding to provide the kind of service. but you know, like in the state of New York, we've seen some really cool things where the Department of Labor. Has created, a workforce development program so that every unemployed person in New York has access to Coursera and the, uh, department of Labor went and talked to each of the different regions of New York, the employers, and said, what kinds of skills are you looking for? And created special learning programs depending on the part of New York that the, that the citizen is in.

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Jeff:

And then they went to the City, university of New York and the State University of New York system and started coordinating. So that, on August 3rd we're going to announce that for suny, in SUNY Empire, which is their online, uh, college with 125 degrees, they're going to accept credit for any a c e recommended course on Coursera, of which we have, you know, 25 to 30. So now there's a really neat interplay between the Department of Labor helping underemployed people get access to education that's curated based on employer's needs. That pathway to a job can also be a pathway to a college degree where you get credit at SUNY for taking a course from Google or I b m.

Eloy:

Wow, I didn't realize that. My good friend, uh, chancellor, king over there was so progressive. Sounds like a great

Jeff:

And anyway, it's certainly happening in the educational domain, in, in, in labor. Of course, many governments are training up their workforce. Many, state governors are saying, we don't wanna require a college degree. We wanna do skills-based hiring. How can we skill people through alternative routes? And, and a lot of this online learning can help to do that with the California State Library. This was super cool as well. The library system basically bought licenses. It's like a new type of, of library book. So 25,000 Californians now have access to Coursera through the California state library system. And so they get access, you know, to best the best universities and, and companies in the, uh, in the world. And, and now we're using AI to provide personal coaching to any California citizen with a library card

Eloy:

I'm gonna have to get my library card. think I lost

Jeff:

right.

Eloy:

it. you've talked about a lift, a lot of different partnerships. how do most learners find Coursera?

Jeff:

You know, most of them go onto Google and they search for something. Usually it's like, I want a job in data science or online course in, you know, leadership or UX design. So most of the traffic comes to Coursera through search engine optimization, and we don't usually pay for ads, but. And a lot of, a lot of the secrets is this eloi. It turns out when you have courses from the top universities and businesses, your search results rank really, really high.'cause people trust them so that the, the, they call it authority. So the authority of our partners really helps people find us pretty easily. So most people come through the internet, but you know, in Coursera for business, those are employees who are introduced to Coursera by their employers. In campuses, the students are introduced to Coursera by their teachers, and then in governments, you know, a citizen in California could be introduced to Coursera through the California State Library system.

Eloy:

All right. Well, let's, let's talk about how Coursera is harnessing the power of, generative ai or g i, a lot has been talked about since the launch of chat G p t earlier this year. How are you and your team thinking about incorporating g a I into your platform, and what does this mean for your learners?

Jeff:

we were sort of tracking. This whole generative AI evolution for, it's been around for a few years. I think 2017 Google wrote this seminal paper about this new, neural network technology around attention, which is a way of kind of emphasizing certain parts of this neural network. And, and that sort of gave rise to generative ai. I mean, honestly, my team was kind of watching it. They were saying, Hey, Jeff, you know, pay attention. And I was kind of paying attention. I'll be totally honest. It wasn't until chat G p t, you know, G P T 3.5 was a big advance and they made it public. And I got my own account in early December and I freaked out. I was just like, as an English major, I mean, it's crazy. Eloy, right? This is the first time in my life. I could like talk to a computer and it was really amazing, like stunning to me. I mean, there was, Arthur Clark I think said, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. And that's how I felt. I was like, this is like, this is magic and now not perfect. It has flaws, it has, has risks, et cetera. We could talk about all that, but I was just stunned by the capability. So what we did is we immediately convened a team in early January. And we identified a few different ways that that AI was gonna impact Coursera. And they've all been basically turning out to be true. But like to a large degree, situational awareness is the first thing that a CEO's gotta do when, when things are changing. So, so first of all, we're like, wow, this could change the way that people learn. So having a personal learning assistant who is. Totally personalized and interactive. And so it's, it's like every learner having their own tutor. We call it coach. it's very, very cool and others are starting to do this as well. I think we'll have many of these things around, but it really is extraordinary how, how, effective the personalized learning can be. So that's number one. It's kind of personalized, interactive learning for the end learner. Uh, number two is something we're building called Course Builder. This is helping our partners. Generate courses and update courses and generate new audio and video and text and things. So the ability to generate content, although you gotta make sure that it's not, uh, hallucinating and that the factuality is high. The ability to, to generate content is being, you know, radically transformed. Just not just language, but sound and images as well. That's the second big thing. The third, which we are, I'm flying out to Indonesia and Thailand. In two weeks. We're announcing global translation of 2000 courses into, in the next 60 days, into seven different languages. But effectively, AI will eliminate. The language barrier for asynchronous learning online. So basically any learner in almost any language will be able to learn from any professor in or or instructor in almost any language. So that will be super cool. And then a fourth one is that we need more AI content on the platform. So a lot more people are coming to Coursera to learn about AI'cause it's such a hot topic. The fifth one is that jobs are changing. So lots of people's jobs, especially in marketing, in legal, anyone who works with language, computer programmers, jobs are gonna be completely transformed. So they're gonna need to get re-skilled. And then the final one, I guess this is number six, is that we, at Coursera, we're retooling the way we do our work so that you know, we're putting in more automated processes utilizing this new generative AI to. Whether that's writing, marketing copy, or for me, I'm using it for decision making. I make a lot of decisions not asking, you know, I'm not just going with whatever the G P T says, but I have it as a thought partner and I'm, I'm kind of talking to chat t all day long in my job.

Eloy:

Well, I'm gonna date myself, but I'm having visions of Hal.

Jeff:

Well, you know, luckily I can still, currently, I can still turn it off. The problem with Hal is,

Eloy:

Oh my goodness. All right, well, um, let's talk about. Your learning platform many leaders in traditional higher education and many policy makers, I know certainly many here in California and throughout the country, they still raise doubts. About the use of online learning and the use of technology and education, what do you say to people who still doubt the power of technology to increase access to quality learning?

Jeff:

the first thing that I would say is when you have over a hundred million people, 80% of them are not in the United States. almost 50% of them are women. And in our STEM enrollments, something like, uh, 38% are women, which is not 50%, but it's definitely been climbing. The numbers don't lie. I mean, the numbers just don't lie. We're, we're now a publicly traded company worth a couple billion dollars because turns out we're really meeting people's needs, you know, from people around the world. Now, it's not to say it's perfect, and I think where, where I, where I do say, well, you know, you do have a point is that, you know, technology will not be able to do, especially for younger people, I mean adolescents and, and anyone K through 12, in my view. Having, you know, been there myself and my, and raising three daughters who are now all in their, late twenties, early thirties. A lot of learning is social. So, no, I think it would be dystopian and horrendous. And we saw a taste of it during Covid if our younger people went to school and it was all technology. that's not the kind learning that we need to do. We need a lot more social learning, but for working adults who are looking for a better job. Who wanna learn some skills to, you know, advance their careers and, and get more opportunity and pay, uh, technology, online learning. And, and some of these advances has been, just absolutely unequivocally, demonstrably effective, not perfect, and not in every single domain, but just overwhelmingly effective in, uh, providing incredible opportunities for. Tens of millions of people. So, yeah, I, so this kind of a question of what, what role should it play and what role should it not play? I mean, it will not replace humans, but boy does it certainly provide a lot more access to high quality education.

Eloy:

Well, I, I think you made the point here, which is it's not about replacing the existing. Pedagogy and the existing learning for a whole host of people who, who have the ability to access a good residential, traditional, higher education experience. But it expands the myriad of opportunities for people who are in different parts, in points in their life, who wanna access knowledge, who wanna access skills. And so I think, I think that's where it plays an important role. And of course, on the flip side, I spend a lot of time talking about, How traditional higher education isn't perfect either, and it's not built every learner. So I think the more options and the more opportunities we have to personalize learning for every individual, I think the better off we, we will be in

Jeff:

Yeah, I think it's a, it's a really good point. I mean, if you look at technology, say with, with computers. When they first were created, the computer sat on a desk and it could do certain things. I mean, what it did really well was Lotus 1 2 3, like the spreadsheet was the killer app of the personal computer back in the, in the eighties. but as technology starts morphing into phones, it starts getting into different elements of our lives. And, and, and the way that you can use it expands. You hit on something I think is really important. Traditional education has served certain populations really well and really effectively.

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Jeff:

But it has failed to serve an awful lot of populations that really need and deserve to, to have similar kinds of opportunities. And so especially for, you know, working people, people with lower levels of education, people who have less money, I. Who can't afford to quit their job.'cause sometimes they're working, two or three don't have a car, or maybe their spouse takes their car so they don't have good access to transportation and they're caring for other family members, so they can't show up at a campus at a certain point in time. I mean, yeah, technology is not perfect, but the current higher education system is not serving everybody perfectly either. And I think that together, you know, technology with, with some of the better parts of traditional education can serve a lot more people a lot more effectively. Well, I certainly agree with that point. so let me, let me pose this question to you as we begin to close, and I appreciate you taking all this time, outta your busy schedule to, to talk with us. But where do you see Coursera going over the next five years, given all the technology advances that you've seen? it's getting harder and harder to predict because like you said, the technology is coming faster and faster. Clearly AI will be a big part of that future, but, you know, ai, I see that much more as an enabler, uh, and potentially a threat. It's something that we have to kind of deal with. It could make it an opportunity or else it'll be a threat, but it is definitely a change this year. But when I think about where we need to go as a company, I think about, well, who, who do we need to serve? I'm, I'm really excited about the way we're doing the translations. I think we can serve a more global population. And it sounds very, Perhaps, you know, basic, but obviously having the content in a language that people can speak, that's pretty important for accessibility. Having payment systems, you know, not everybody uses credit cards and, and so. Being more accessible to people around the world is a big part of that. And that has to do with language and affordability and, and, and, and payments. It also includes working through institutions like governments and campuses and businesses to provide that kinda learning support. So greater global access is, is a major thing. I like to have, you know, hundreds of millions of learners, not just a hundred and whatever million. Now, another major focus is gonna be connecting learning to job opportunities. if you have a college degree and you have a nice long work experience link, LinkedIn works great

Eloy:

Right?

Jeff:

if you don't have a college degree and you wanna switch careers into something that pays better, that's not easy. It's like, well, you don't have a college degree and you don't have any LinkedIn. How do I know if I should hire you or not? And people talk about skills-based hiring, which is really important to afford more opportunities to people. How do you do that? And what we're trying to do, we just announced Coursera hiring solutions in April, is now all of the learners on Coursera can build personal, sort of skill profiles that they can show to an employer. And we can allow employers to find people who have skills, even if those people don't have a lot of work experience in a college degree. Another piece of what we're doing and really pushing on is. This idea of bridging industry and higher education. So what higher education does really well is college degrees and that's awesome, but you know, we gotta make them more affordable and flexible. What industry has done really well, and it's really turbocharging, a lot of our consumer segment are these professional certificates and these are 5,000 hours. What we're seeing globally, and it's very exciting, is. We are working with the a c E, the American Council on Education. They're doing credit recommendations for these industry professional certificates, and then colleges are implementing these as career electives in their for credit curricula. So another major sort of trend for us is gonna be bridging the gap between industry and higher education, via what you might call career electives. These industry professional certificates that get integrated. Count as credit for prior learning, you know, towards college degrees. So that's another. And then finally, we talked a little bit about ai, but clearly as an enabler, AI will be a big part of, of what we do in terms of personalized interactive learning with personalized feedback course content generation for our partners. and then love the jobs transitions have to do as well with job opportunities. Like how can we help people get access to the new jobs that'll be created and deal with some of the disruption that's gonna be coming.

Eloy:

Well, I think those are all great things to look forward to, especially when you think about how to better support learners who wanna connect to, to those jobs So, um, Jeff, I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us about what you're doing, to tell us more about Coursera. So thanks for being with me here on the Rain.

Jeff:

Thank you so much, elo. I really appreciate it.

Eloy:

All right. Well, you've been listening to my conversation w with Jeff as we've been talking about, uh, the evolution of Coursera and where they're going into the future. Lots of exciting stuff. So if you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button. Uh, let me know your thoughts and the comments, uh, about Coursera, about skills-based hiring, about the use of ga I. If you are following us on this YouTube channel, subscribe and continue to follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thanks for joining us, everybody, and we'll see you soon.