School in the metaverse: How tech and the pandemic are changing online education

Coursera’s CEO and chief content officer see a future of learning that’s more on-demand, more personalized and more immersive.

Person holding a smartphone

There’s a real possibility of lasting change and improvement in education.

Photo: Coursera

Nothing about the state of education feels “normal” right now. If you’re a parent, you’re trying to navigate hybrid learning, keeping up with medical advice, dealing with an onslaught of omicron and trying to make sure your kids keep up through it all. And if you’re an adult, you’re looking for new ways to keep up in a world where every technology, every system, every tool and every job’s basic requirements seem to change all the time.

But in the midst of all that upheaval, there’s a real possibility of lasting change and improvement in education. “We know, broadly, that learning will become more available, it’ll be more online, and there’ll be a lot more people learning for a lot more of their lives,” said Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. Coursera is focused on adult learning rather than the K-12 set, but is still grappling with many of the same questions about the future of learning, and how to take digital education far beyond just a recording of a lecture hall.

Maggioncalda and Coursera Chief Content Officer Betty Vandenbosch joined the Source Code podcast to talk about the chaotic state of online education, what’s next for corporate training, how softer skills are becoming part of the work curriculum, how learning might work in the metaverse and much more.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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It seems like everything about education, online and off, is in total chaos. Nobody knows anything about how this is all going to shake out. People don't know where they're going to go to school tomorrow. They don't know how virtual learning is supposed to work. Now we're talking about the metaverse — maybe the future of school is Roblox! — and I'm curious, as you think about both building the Coursera platform and building the courses themselves, do you come into this with an opinion on what the future looks like? Or is the job to just provide a platform for lots of these different institutions to do whatever they think is best?

Jeff Maggioncalda: I think it's a blend. There are very broad strokes where you have to say, “Let's see, what will the future look like?” We don't know exactly. But we know there's going to be a lot more adults learning throughout their lives than before. Well, why is that true? Because the world is changing faster than it's ever changed before. Technology and globalization are just changing the nature of business, the nature of jobs, the skills that people need to know, the tools that people need to know. There's a bigger imperative to be successful in your career, to learn things. And so older people have to learn things, you have to learn things throughout your whole life.

Not everyone's going to go back to campus; people are going to be doing more learning online, especially adults. We know, broadly, that learning will become more available, it'll be more online, and there'll be a lot more people learning for a lot more of their lives.

We also believe that credentials will become more important, not less, because it's hard to know who knows what. Institutions will play a big role. And if there’s anything that we've learned from technology, it’s that technology will radically change the way that we learn, the way that we work, where we learn, where we work. So I think there's going to be an incredible explosion of opportunity in the future that we just didn't see so much in the past.

Betty Vandenbosch: I think we set the table, we have a platform and we have ideas. We have lots of ideas. And our partners have ideas as well. And we come together to figure out what we might try, what might work, what might not work. And it's really the connection with the thousands of people who are faculty at our university partnerships, and the incredible creativity of our industry partnerships like Google and IBM and Microsoft and Facebook. But it's ultimately the learners who tell us, because they either do it or they don't.

For me, there’s not going to be one answer. I think 25 years ago, there was one answer, “this is the way you go to school.” Those days are gone, and they're not coming back. And the sooner we all recognize that there are a lot of ways to become educated, the sooner we'll be more creative and come up with a lot of ways to become educated that fit more precisely the needs of the people who need that education.

The average MOOC is basically just a recording of a lecture hall. And the cool thing about it was that it was accessible to people who were not in that lecture hall. And over time, we've added some things: Coursera has quizzes and readings and there's some more of these interactive elements. But it seems to me that we must be at the very beginning of figuring out all the different ways to make this stuff interactive and personalized, and rethinking what it actually means to teach and learn in a digital space. Is there cool stuff happening that I'm not seeing? Are we at the very beginning of something exciting?

BV: If we're working from one to 100, we're at about three.

We now have guided projects, which enable someone to — without having to download or do any of that complicated stuff — just watch a faculty member, and then try it themselves using a product. The product can be Excel, it could be Python, it can be anything. And that's all done in a web browser.

But we have only touched the surface in terms of putting projects together that use AI to see whether or not you're doing a good job. There's the metaverse: We have currently no courses using the metaverse, but that doesn't mean we're not going to! And we’re just getting started.

In terms of what makes good pedagogy, the pandemic did online education a huge, huge disservice. Because everybody thought, “If I put up a camera, I'm teaching online.” Wrong. We've got a report about the elements of quality in online education, and 45 minutes in front of a camera isn't it. It has to do with frequent interactions, frequent connections. And for the learner, it means you have to try every day, not just say, “I'm going to work for four hours on Tuesday and that'll be it.” So I think, truly, we're just getting started. And what's holding us back is enough time to try all these fabulous new ideas.

JM: I'll just give you one little example of how radically things could change. To your point, phase one of doing MOOCs — these massively open online courses — there was a lot of doing a new version of a lecture in a lecture hall. Betty mentioned big phase two, which is all the hands-on learning: How do you take the knowledge and use tools to apply that knowledge to build a project?

There’s a growing emergence of collaborative learning that's happening in online spaces with group projects, virtual reality, presence with other people that you're learning with. You’ve got a lot of VR and AR stuff coming, but even the beginnings of something that's way more basic than AR and VR: If you think about training nurses and doctors, generally you do clinical training, where like seven students will walk through the halls of the hospital, they'll walk into a patient's room, they'll all stand against the wall, watch a doctor talk to the patient, and then they'll all walk out and talk about it. We see people right now working on things where the doctor has a lens on her glasses. It also has a microphone, and the students are virtually in the room, but literally seeing through the same eyes as the doctor. And the students can talk to the patient via the speaker in the professor's glasses.

Today we could train maybe five to 10 students per doctor, but you'll be able to train 100 students per doctor, 1,000 students per doctor, to the extent that they can all walk into that patient's room and have that kind of experience. And this is not super fancy technology. It's a really creative application of technology to a highly constrained problem, which is preventing us from having enough nurses and doctors in the world.

If you want to learn how to do something on the internet, the options are endless. And if I want to do something like fix a tire, that's not necessarily something I would think immediately to go to Coursera for. That’s YouTube’s job, or WikiHow’s job. So as you think about what it means to be a learner online, is there a box around where you see Coursera’s job in that? Are you thinking more about careers and jobs rather than specific tasks?

JM: We're squarely focused on adult learning. We're not going after K-12, we think there's a lot of differences in that market that we're not going to be so good at. And then in terms of WikiHow and YouTube? We're all learners on the internet, we're all doing online learning, I would say especially for tasks that don't require a lot of prerequisite knowledge or conceptual understanding. There's a lot of task-oriented learning that we're all doing all the time that's very easy to consume. And there's a lot of competition.

Where we really focus more is on the longer, credentialed learning that's focused more on career. So helping adults learn the conceptual knowledge and applied skills to become more proficient at a career.

BV: But there's another part to career that I think is really important for us to acknowledge. And that is that a career is bigger than a skill. We definitely teach career skills, but we also teach how to be in a career. We have a really important course on English for business people. We have courses on social impact, and what you need to do in the areas of DEI in your organization. How do you think about managing folks? What is emotional intelligence?

One of our most popular courses is The Science of Well-Being. You’d think that's not a business course, that's not a career course. But I'm here to tell you that if your employees are happy, you will be more successful. And so to say, it’s skills — well, it is, but it's career writ large, not just “if I know how to program I can get a job.” And I think that's really, really important as well.

Speaking of the Science of Well-Being Class: That is everybody's canonical example of a smash hit Coursera class. What are the things that people should be learning from courses like that, about why they worked so well? Are there other classes out there in the Coursera curriculum that are emblematic of things being done really well?

BV: So what makes a blockbuster? There is some science, and there's lots of art. Courses that do well on Coursera are courses that have an immediate applicability to people's lives. They are courses that are taught by really good instructors. A course that does 4.8 out of 5 does much better than a course that does 4.5.

And also, it's courses that people stay connected to. One of the reasons that The Science of Well-Being does so well is because it asks you to reflect on yourself. Who doesn't want to think about themselves? There are others, too, that help you in a way that you might not expect right off the bat. Another course that's really, really powerful is Learning How to Learn, because that's helping you do all your other courses better.

If you're a faculty member and you say, “Well, I want a course that’s a blockbuster,” chances are you're not going to get one unless you have the passion for your topic. You recognize how your topic will help people right away, you have an immediate return for them either personally or professionally. And you're a really good teacher. So those are the three things I think that are the most important.

Super easy, totally simple stuff.

BV: Well, I said blockbuster! We have really good courses, but I'm just talking about the “oh my gosh” courses.

We have a lot of listeners who are running teams in the tech industry, trying to figure out how to reskill and retrain and up-level a lot of their workers. So I'm curious: When you start working with a company like Google, what do companies like that want from Coursera? Like a company like Google obviously has lots of resources, they're invested in lots of online education stuff. What do they come to you for?

JM: I would say a few things. First, a lot of companies — and I'm not saying Google's in this position, actually Google's is very advanced — but there's some businesses who say, “We’ve got to do digital transformation, and that means that we have to have a culture of learning. That means we’ve got to provide some education for people.” When you get a little bit more advanced, the question I like to ask — which is a very, very simple question, but a lot of people don't really have a very clear answer — is, who needs which skills at your company?

Are you trying to teach your financial planning and analysis people how to do SQL? Are you trying to develop some of your data scientists to be able to program in Python? Are you trying to teach your software engineers the art of machine learning and predictive algorithms? Where is the real benefit that you need to be driving strategically?

Then what we can say is, OK, for those types of jobs, here are the most important skills to do that job at the state of the art. We have a pretty good sense of the really hot jobs that are changing the fastest — here are the skills that people need to be learning in those jobs. And then not only can we teach the skills, but we can allow a manager to benchmark their employees against other employees in the same job so that the skillsets let you say, this is a reference set of skills and proficiency is for this job based on actual empirical evidence from other companies.

Once your employees start taking those, you can benchmark it. And even before they start taking the courses, you can do something we just launched in November called “LevelSets,” where you could do a quick diagnostic to see, OK, how well do my marketers understand social media marketing? Or how well do my finance people understand SQL? You can do diagnostics that help really figure out who knows what, and what's the gap that they need to close in order to do this job at the cutting edge.

You have to each give me an underrated, super cool Coursera course that people should check out — that isn't The Science of Well-Being, because everybody knows that — and then I will let you go. Jeff, you go first.

JM: The one I just finished is called Big History, from the University of Amsterdam. It goes from the Big Bang and quantum physics, up to how AI will impact the future of humanity. And in between, it talks about evolution, it talks about cosmology, it talks about climate change.

BV: The course that I recommend the most often is one on emotional intelligence. And it comes from Case Western Reserve University. The basic premise is you have to know yourself before you can know someone else, you have to manage yourself before you can manage someone else. And while that seems pretty simple, it's not. And when people recognize that, and recognize that they have to fix themselves before they can start bossing other people around, it just improves their abilities to lead immeasurably. So that's my favorite course.

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