How Coursera is scaling its edtech platform as learning shifts online

Published Aug 24, 2020

It’s an unprecedented time in many ways, and that’s especially true of the need for and use of e-learning platforms like Coursera. 

Edtech usage spiked in the spring as schools and college campuses closed down due to COVID-19, and similar spikes are registering as the new school year and the fall semester ramp up, both online and in-person. On top of that, the virus’s effects on the global economy have seen unemployment rise to record highs, leading people to e-learning platforms like Coursera as they work to expand their knowledge and skill sets to increase their odds of landing a new job.

Coursera product managers Jenny Wolochow, Helen Zou, and Terri Czerwinski recently joined Pendo’s webinar “The education ecosystem: How to build for students, educators, and institutions” to discuss this dramatic shift in user needs, how Pendo helps the company adapt to it, and the future of both online and traditional education models.

From emergent crisis to the evolution of education

Initially, COVID-19 placed educators in an emergency remote learning situation, said Wolochow. One of the biggest challenges for professors and other educators was the short time span in which they found themselves. Many were required to adapt their courses to an online format or design entirely new virtual lesson plans from scratch.

Because Coursera already had thousands of online courses available spanning a galaxy of subjects, the company was able to give universities the option to match courses and course material with those in its own catalog. In addition, they made the content free for educators so they could quickly supplement their own courses with Coursera content.

“A lot of the work we’re doing in response to the COVID-19 situation is empowering educators to be able to take advantage of Coursera content and keep their online courses going during the crisis,” Czerwinski said. Over the spring and summer, millions of course hours were delivered through this method, she noted.

 Now, as the pandemic stretches on, those same educators are settling in and developing more eloquent strategies for continuing education in a hybrid or virtual setting. Students, teachers, and universities are looking to Coursera for guidance to deliver the optimum learning experience.

On the educator side, the platform’s core users have historically been those instructors who are most excited about the prospects and potential of virtual education and motivated to design online courses. Now, most faculty members don’t have a choice. Authorship on the platform has exploded from a few hundred to tens of thousands of new users, and the Coursera team is under pressure to make sure they’re able to take full advantage of the platform. 

“There were faculty who in the past have said ‘No, I don’t want to teach online,’ and now they are having to learn (how to do it). Now, there’s even more importance in the design to make sure everyone is learning to use Coursera’s authoring tools and are comfortable with them,” Wolochow said.

There’s been a similar influx of users on the learner side, Zou noted, and not just from college students. Unemployed workers attempting to re-skill and venture into careers. At the same time,  governments are seeking new ways to retrain their country’s workforce. Finally, many lifelong learners are just as interested in online education offerings, many offered through Coursera’s platform. “We’ve been thinking a lot about how we package our content so that people can get career outcomes at the end of this,” she said.

Coursera has also put out brand new content tailored to the times, such as courses around COVID-19 contact tracing from Johns Hopkins University, or others around the science behind epidemiology. In addition, Coursera highlights the availability of subjects such as personal wellbeing and resilience in trying periods. Each has seen astronomical growth. Coursera has also seen increased interest among those in the workforce, as companies shifting to remote work seek out courses that allow their employees to learn new skills or tools. “We’re getting feedback that we’re helping people adapt and adjust,” Czerwinski said.

Scaling and driving engagement with Pendo

With so many new users rushing onto Coursera, the company was faced with the challenge of getting all of them up to speed, and quickly. That meant scaling and automating a process that’s historically been a very manual effort, said Czerwinski.

To get the job done, the product team turned to Pendo. Pendo’s in-app guidance and messaging capabilities provided the infrastructure they needed to set up automated, in-app onboarding flows. “We went from a small number of customers to a very, very large number of customers within the space of a few months,” Czerwinski said. “We relied heavily on Pendo, both to show our users how to use the product and to market our online webinars to them so they could hear us talk about how to use the platform  more effectively.” 

Because Coursera’s courses are often populated by thousands of students, it’s not always possible for instructors to keep tabs on each individual student to ensure they’re paying attention and aren’t falling behind. That’s where Coursera uses data from Pendo and other sources to monitor usage and engagement then nudge students onto the paths that the most successful students follow.

For example, the data might show that students who watch the first video lecture within five minutes of starting the course are significantly more likely to complete it. Coursera would then send a message to students after enrollment to direct them to that first video, Zou said.

Pendo is also a key tool in encouraging product-wide adoption at Coursera, Czerwinski said. In-app guides are routinely directed at administrators as they log in, pointing out new features and walking them through their first use.

In-app surveys are often used to collect user feedback about features that are in development or beta testing to help refine them and maximize their usefulness. That survey data is helpful in identifying user pain, and either optimizing to solve the problem or building additional tools, Wolochow said. This method, for instance, led the team to realize that administrators felt quizzes took too long to set up, so they built a feature allowing users to import Google Docs with the quiz information directly into the platform. 

And, Czerwinski said, Pendo data helps examine the paths users take through the platform, reveal which features are heavily used and which users rarely engage with, and A/B test feature location on a page to encourage engagement. “That helps us understand the trends and outcomes that are related to behaviors, she said.

When Pendo data indicated a large number of users were becoming stuck at a certain stage, such as failing to invite students to their course after logging in for the first time, Pendo guides are deployed to assist and demonstrate best practices.