Inside Higher Ed: Coursera's Contractual Elitism

By Ry Rivard, for Inside Higher Ed

If you wonder why your university hasn’t linked up with Coursera, the massively popular provider of free online classes, it may help to know the company is contractually obliged to turn away the vast majority of American universities.

The Silicon Valley-based company said to be revolutionising higher education says in a contract seen by Inside Higher Ed that it will “only” offer classes from elite institutions – the members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America – unless Coursera’s advisory board agrees to waive the requirement.

The little-known contractual language appears in agreements Coursera signs with the 62 universities it partners with, including in a recently signed contract with the University of California at Santa Cruz, one of a handful of non-AAU universities on Coursera.

The provision obligates the company, on paper at least, to give AAU members de facto preference. That association, which has 62 members (two of them Canadian) in a country with roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, is committed to staying relatively small, to the frustration of universities seeking to join.

Given the AAU’s research university orientation, most liberal arts colleges, community colleges and regional public universities could never join - and many public research universities haven’t been asked either.

Meanwhile, universities across the country are clamoring not to be left out of the Mooc craze that some predict will upend the traditional business model for higher ed. Regional colleges and universities, in particular, face “significant risks” if they are left out of emerging online educational offerings such as Coursera, according to an analysis last year by Moody’s.

Scores of universities have sought to partner with Coursera or edX, another major Mooc provider. Most, of course, have been denied. In the UK, the only universities on Coursera are the University of Edinburgh – the fifth highest UK institution in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 - and the University of London’s distance-learning International Programmes.

Coursera’s co-founder, Daphne Koller, said the AAU-only rule is not ironclad. The one-year-old company has already made several exceptions for non-AAU institutions.

Professor Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University, said the AAU provision came about during the early days of the company. In late 2011 and early 2012, Coursera was looking to reassure potential partners that it would not end up watering down their brand. Professor Koller called AAU a “self-regulating organisation by academics for academics” that created a plausible standard for entry.

“It seemed like a reasonable thing to do, so we did it,” she said.

The rule also fits with the company’s mission statement, which foresees “a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions.”

A spokeswoman for edX said “edX does not currently have any language” resembling the AAU-only language in the Coursera contract.

EdX has its own elitism. It hosts classes only from 12 universities, including its two founders, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. But edX’s exclusivity was widely perceived, while Coursera’s preferences were less clear. Seven of edX’s nine North American universities are in the AAU.

The language in Coursera’s agreements does not prohibit the company from freely licensing its software to non-AAU universities - but universities that offered classes that way would not appear on Coursera’s website and would not have automatic access to Coursera’s three million registered users. EdX has promised to make its software platform freely available on the internet for other universities to use on their own. Asked about edX’s commitment to make its software freely available, Professor Koller said it would be “very difficult for an institution to take a bunch of code and run it”.

She said the exceptions Coursera has made to its AAU rule already show the contractual language may not be ideal and also indicates membership in the association is not the determining factor for Coursera.

“It’s a factor but it’s certainly not the dominant factor,” she said.

The AAU-only language, as it appeared in the recent contract between Coursera and Santa Cruz, commits the company to offer “only content provided by top-quality educational institutions”. To Coursera that means it will “provide only content provided by universities that are a member of the Association of American Universities” or universities outside of North America that are “generally regarded ‘top five’ universities within any country in any given year”.

The company, if it wants to host content from other universities, is required to get approval from an advisory board of top officials from Coursera’s early partners.

So far, Coursera has admitted six non-AAU North American universities. Three of them are in California - the universities of California at Santa Cruz and San Francisco and the California Institute of the Arts - and two are in the Northeast - Berklee College of Music and Wesleyan University. The University of British Columbia is the sixth.

“Obviously we feel as an advisory board that approves every single one of those exceptions that the parameters that define the set as AAU are not quite the ones we need going forward, but we have not yet quite identified the right alternative for that,” Professor Koller said.

She said Coursera is also working working with Mt. San Jacinto College to offer a free online writing course to help students get ready for higher-level English courses. Professor Koller said elite colleges can’t be of much help when it comes to offering such entry-level courses.

“The kind of teaching that you get at top Ivy Leagues may not be ideally suited for everyone, so we are broadening beyond that,” she said.

But what about star instructors at state schools or small colleges that are not members of AAU? Professor Koller said Coursera does not have the staff to find or vet such diamonds in the rough. Getting a course ready for prime time is also fairly intensive and requires hand-holding by company staff. Currently, Coursera has only nine course operators.

“We can’t handle 500 instructors from 500 institutions right now,” she said.

Several higher education insiders were not aware of Coursera’s contractual obligations.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities represents both AAU and non-AAU members. A spokesman for the association said he spoke with Professor Koller this week about the AAU-only provision.

“The AAU universities that are public and land-grant institutions are outstanding institutions but, at the same time, in talking to Coursera, we understand they are looking to expand the scope of universities they are interested in partnering with,” association spokesman Jeff Lieberson said this week.

Professor Koller said Coursera is considering whether the AAU-only language still makes sense.

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