Jeff Maggioncalda on the rise of alternative credentials, in an interview for the Observatory

I think certain specialized micro-credentials might be more valued by employers than a university degree.
— Jeff Maggioncalda.

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, spoke with the Observatory on the importance of alternative credentials and the future of higher education.

Read the full transcript:

Observatory: Do you think alternative credentials will ever be recognized by the job market on par with traditional college degrees?

Maggioncalda: Certainly. My view is that if you look at the job market, there are thousands and thousands of different jobs. And some of those jobs will require more traditional university training. But increasingly, I think, you'll have more jobs that are specialized, and there will be specialized micro-credentials that will be relevant. My sense is that for management and executive jobs, probably a college degree will remain a really important credential. But for many other types of jobs where specialization is very important, I think certain specialized micro-credentials might be more valued by employers than a university degree.

Observatory: How do you address the challenge of low completion rates on online courses?

Maggioncalda: Well, I think it really depends on which courses you're looking at. When we look at our degrees, which are three-year programs, we have completion rates above 90%. In fact, right now, it's above 95%. When the student is very committed to what they're learning, they complete at very high rates. When we look at the completion rates among students who pay for a course to get that credential at the end of it, we see high credential rates, about 50%.

When you look at students who take a course for free, the completion rates are lower. In many cases, the student is just trying it out. They're just checking to see if they want to take that course. It's a little bit like being on Amazon where you'll browse different items. You don't buy everything that you research. Sometimes you'll put it in your cart, and sometimes you'll buy it later. But you're just sort of browsing and researching different ideas, and then later you might do that. And we see this with the Coursera. People will try a course, leave it, sometimes they'll come back to it, and sometimes they'll try a different course.

Observatory: How will artificial intelligence impact the education industry?

Maggioncalda: I think artificial intelligence will have a different impact depending on what age the student is. For younger students, a lot of what they need is to just be loved, and touched, and feel cared for by adults, and to learn how to play with their peers. I don't think artificial intelligence is going to do much for that. I think that's just being with other humans, and learning how to be collaborative and be social.

I think for adults, artificial intelligence will have a bigger impact on their learning experience. A lot of it, frankly, will reduce costs by making grading more automated. One of the things that takes a lot of time for professors and TAs is to grade all of the assessments. And I think that machine learning will become very good, especially when you have millions and millions of learners. Machine learning will be very good at grading written, computer science, and mathematics. Many courses will be able to be graded automatically, and that will really reduce the cost of offering it.

I also think that when you are taking courses, and you're going through that assessment, the rate at which you are presented with ideas, how challenging those ideas are, will be much more personalized to you based on machine learning. if we know that 100 people really struggled on a certain question on a certain test, and we know that they had struggled with other questions before that, maybe the computer will say, "Well, let's not give them such a hard question right now. Let's give them a little bit easier question." Or if you're the kind of learner that really likes to do simulations, maybe your curriculum will be more based on simulations. Or if you are interested in architecture, maybe the case studies that you go through will be based on architecture. So, it will be more personalized to your mastery level, and more personalized to your interests.

Observatory: What will higher education look like in the year 2049?

Maggioncalda: 2049 is a long ways away. No one knows. But here's what I would say: virtual reality and machine learning will have a very big impact. I believe that technology will allow people to essentially feel all their senses, their sight, their sound, their smell, they will feel like they're in a different place, not where they are. So, the ability to virtually be in the same place will be almost transparent, if not transparent. Anybody will be able to be in the same space at the same time collaborating. And the ability to work together will be extraordinary. Today we have Google Docs, but the ability to share information and collaborate on projects will be totally seamless.

What I can't really predict is what role machine learning and artificial intelligence will play in the nature of the problems that humans try to solve. It might be at a point by 2049 where computers can solve, can write computer software. Computers solve data science problems. Computers might be doing a huge range of the things that humans do today. It might be the case that what humans are learning more about is how to influence and collaborate with other humans. It might really focus on that. I really don't know. It will be radically different, and almost inconceivable from what we know today.