Netflix-style unlimited subscriptions at Coursera?

This morning, I logged into Coursera with the intention on doing some work on a programming course I’ve been working on. Was hoping to finish the course in the week before a much anticipated and needed summer vacation.

On logging in, I encountered a new banner at the top of the screen:

Intrigued, I clicked, and found this.

There is no “Read More” button here to find more, so I don’t know if there is any fine print.  The only way I can see to find out more is to sign up for a free 7 day trial.

But on the surface, it seems to be billing itself as unlimited access to the full course catalogue. It also indicates a price of $66 CDN per month after the trial period. At current exchange rates, this would translate to $52 USD per month, so I’m assuming based on price equivalents in other courses that the US price would be an even $50 USD per month.

This seems to be a step beyond the previous model, launched in the fall of 2016, which was a move toward subscriptions for specializations. A specialization in Coursera is a set of courses related to a common discipline and usually totalling around 6 months of class time. Think the equivalent of taking a year-long university course on a topic. Prior to fall 2016, courses were paid for individually, with perhaps a volume discount for those who paid for a whole specialization at once. Since fall of 2016, the move has been toward subscribing, monthly, to a specialization, until the subscription is cancelled or the program is completed.

https://blog.coursera.org/introducing-subscriptions-for-specializations/

Previously though, subscriptions would be to one specific specialization, and subscribing to multiple specializations would mean paying for each individually. What I am seeing advertised now is more of a blanket Netflix-style buffet subscription to the whole course catalogue.

Oddly, I’m not seeing anything about this on the Coursera blog.

I pinged Coursera on Twitter to see if they have anything more to say. I’ll update here if I hear anything. I also can’t see anything else written anywhere on the internet. I suspect, as a long time regular user of the platform that I may be on the early wave of the rollout or part of a pilot test.

However, if this is indeed the direction Coursera is going, this is very exciting news.  This sort of general subscription model is popular across a range of other types of content like music (Xbox music, Spotify, Apple Music) and video/TV (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu). Subscription to a library of online courses seems like a logical step.

In fact, this is already the case with services like Lynda.com (in the process of rebranding as LinkedIn Learning. LinkedIn Learning is $26 a month with an annual subscription in Canada.

That’s a little less than half what Coursera seems to be settting as a price. However, it’s a bit of an apple and oranges. LinkedIn Learning / Lynda courses are usually pretty basic instruction, a few hours of video tutorials and no graded assignments but some simple exercises you can follow along with. It’s kind of the equivalent of a webinar. There is also no learner-instructor or learner-learner interactions available.

Coursera courses on the other hand tend to be more of a substantive course. There are graded assignments (in some courses, very demanding ones), the courses are longer (4-6 weeks with 1-2 hours of lecture content per week), and there are discussion forums to help scaffold learning. A full access to the Coursera catalogue is a larger thing, and it makes sense that it would be more.

The interesting thing to see will be how well this is received. Doubtless Coursera is collecting lots of data to drive their decision-making on new models of payment. And their revenues have been rising at a steep rate during the past few years.

I can see a lot of intriguing applications of this.

  • For someone who is serious about continuing professional development, this could be a pretty good deal. $66 ($50 USD) a month is about $2 a day, about the cost of a cup of coffee. Put another way,  it’s comparable to a gym membership, but for your mind. Or, alternatively, about $800 a year. 1 – 2% of annual income if you have a decent job; not an unreasonable amount to invest in yourself if you want to keep sharp. 
  • It’s also low enough that a company could offer a subscription as a perk to employees to help them keep skills sharp.
  • Conceivably, a government could pay for a subscription temporarily as part of employment insurance or welfare.
  • Finally, the price is pretty reasonable for someone between jobs to take a concentrated crash course of study to skill up.

All in all, if this is in fact the path Coursera is generally planning to take, this is pretty exciting development for the world of MOOCs and online training in general.

More on this as information becomes available.

EDIT:

(July 10, 2017) The learner help page at Coursera seems to confirm that this is planned as a broad rollout eventually. 

Concept: Video-conferencing for second-language learning

Introduction

For decades, bilingualism has been official governnent policy in Canada, a goal of the educational system across the provinces. In pursuit of this, federal and provincial governments have spent lots of money on second language learning. All across the country, anglophone students take French as a Second Language (FSL)  courses from early grades through to high school. These courses range from basic core French up to immersion and intensive.

And similarly, francophone students take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_bilingualism_in_Canada#Personal_bilingualism_in_Canada

The problem

However, despite all the cost and effort over decades, results are somewhat lackluster. Statistics indicate that only about 17% of Canadians however are bilingual English-French. (A reasonably impressive 35% of Canadians are bilingual, but this includes other languages)

Why is this so?

One of the challenges of second language learning for official languages in Canada is lack of opportunity to practice with speakers of the other language in an immersive fashion. Language, we must remember, is not some abstract skill. Language is a practical set of tools used to communicate with people. And these tools take regular practice to gain and maintain.

It is hard to acquire language skills in a vacuum, and harder to maintain them after the formal learning stops. These skills have to be practiced to gain them, and need to be regularly used to avoid the skills degrading.

The problem is that for much of the population in Canada, there is no regular access to speakers of the other official language. Imagine a French Québécois living in rural Quebec. The locals are almost 100% francophone. All normal conversation, outside of a school, are in French. English is only accessible passively through American TV and movies. Aside from tourists, there is little to no daily opportunity to try out English skills.

On the other hand, imagine an English speaking person in suburban Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary. French is something that exists only in a classroom. How many French speakers can be found out on the streets? Truth be told, it is probably easier to find a conversation partner in Hindi or Mandarin in these areas than French.

Bilingualism rates in Canada
French-English Bilingualism rates in Canada

To practice speaking the second language, you either need to find a willing language partner in your community. Either that, or you need to travel to go immerse yourself, or live in a mixed area. Most people are not going to find the first. And as for the second, outside of southeastern New Brunswick, Montreal, and the Ottawa River valley, you don’t tend to see these highly mixed environments. Again, Canada’s cities are linguistically rich, but this is not widely so in terms of English-French. Ottawa, Montreal, and Moncton, are probably the richest urban environments in Canada for vibrant English-French bilingualism. There are also bands of bilingualism in Northern Ontario bordering Quebec, the Ottawa RIver valley, and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. These places are home to something like 5 million Canadians. What about the other 30-odd million?

Solution:

So what is to be done? How can willing language learners get around these limitations?

One option would be to take advantage of advances in communication technology.

Video-conferencing software like Skype, Whatsapp, Lync, Google Hangouts, and Facetime combined with faster wired and wireless internet offer an opportunity to collapse the barriers of distance and bring together people in different places for face-to-face communication. These tools are already used every day for separated family members to keep in touch and for business associates to communicate.

What if this was applied to second language learning courses?

Penpal exchanges are a long running learning approachfor language classrooms. But what about using Internet audio or video chat to allow a voice or face to face connection? Any of the existing video conferencing tools could work as the medium of communication. The challenge then would be to help connect / pair up people with complementary needs for language exchanges.

I’m imagining some sort of web-based platform to help connect FSL classroom teachers and students from English Canada with ESL classroom teachers and students from French Canada. The platform would enable people to meet each other, at which point contact information could be exchanged and appointments set to do face to face exchanges. Then sessions could be set one on one between matched pairs of students.

Such a platform could target either students in grade school classrooms or older students pursuing second language learning on their own as two distinct markets. There could also be a third institutional market, for example for government hires to meet language requirements, or for a Canada-wide company looking to skill up its employees who need bilingualism.

This social platform could enable people to match up for video/audio-based conversational exchanges, as well as provide a platform (internet chat or discussion board) for text-based exchanges. The video and audio conferencing itself is probably best handled by the specialized platforms that deal with all the complexities of providing smooth video chatting. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel of video chat tools.

The service of this site would be focused on enabling appropriate pairings of classrooms and individuals. Learners could be matched on age, relative language level, gender, hobbies/interests or whatever other factors are appropriate. The key is that francophones get matched with anglophones to allow for a real exchange.

With better opportunities for regular real life practice, a lot of potential benefits appear:

  • The use of the second language becomes necessary. In a dialogue with your local classmate who is also unilingual, it is tempting fior both to just slip back into their own first language, because it’s easily possible. However, if you’re talking with someone who is just as weak in English as you are in French, you both need to work your opposite language skills or else communication won’t happen.
  • Cultural exchange. The “other” becomes less of an other. English Canadians have real first hand contact with French Canadians. They become more real to each other, no longer “Two Solitudes.”
  • The motivation to learn the second language is raised because the practical benefits are made more concrete. It’s not just an artificial dialogue to pass an assessment. It’s not an abstract piece of learning to pass a test or course. It becomes a useful tool to communicate with real human beings you can see and interact with.
  • Confidence in second language skills rises and hesitation to go out and practice in the real world falls. It’s often a lack of confidence that keeps people back from practice even when skills are there and opportunity is available.

All of this should serve to improve outcomes in learning in terms of transfer of learning and retention of learning.

Concept: A VR tool for couples to reconnect

Relationships take work.

These days, the world is busy, and lives are busy. Our minds are scattered on a hundred different competing points of attention and little tasks to do. In a couple, one person will have his job, and the other will have hers, and attending to the details can be all-consuming.

As you pass through life, day after day, your mind tracks on a journey, your whole mindset bouncing and drifting over time as the waves of life come up against you. And you have your own daily concerns and challenges, and your parter has her own. If you don’t take the time to regularly reconnect and resync, it’s all too easy to drift off in different directions and end up on different pages. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to step away, together from this daily noise to be meaningfully together and rekindle that shared heartbeat, that shared engine that drives the ships in a shared direction underneath all this daily and weekly turmoil. We humans are forgetful, and benefit from reminders.

This can take many forms. A dinner out, a weekend away from the kids, a nice vacation together, some shared hobby. All of these are great ideas.

But, as always, I’m into technology, and like to think about the ways that tech can enhance our lives in weird and wonderful ways. And in this spirit, an interesting application of VR occurred to me recently.

Couples will have certain moments and places where they have shared sweet memories together. Places and times when they shared the best moments together, where they felt most in sync and in love. The place you first went out together. Your honeymoon. Some great weekend or vacation together. Reminding ourselves of these moments, and regularly creating new such moments is one of the ways you keep that connection fresh and alive.

Now imagine if you could take these places and moments, say from pictures and videos you have taken, and then somehow digitize the place into a 3D VR model. Then maybe add in some soundscapes that remind you of that place and time and incorporate that into the model. Then on some given night, instead of sitting on the couch watching Netflix in that hour before bed, you can both put on the VR headset, and fire up this moment and sort of bring yourself back into that shared memory and mental state. Do that for 15, 20 minutes, and then take off the goggles and spend some time together IRL.

Log out of the world. Resync your signals. And then log back into reality and spend time together maybe a little more present to each other.