Skip to content

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera: Remote Possibilities – Pandemic-Driven Explosion in Online Work and Learning

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera: Remote Possibilities - Pandemic-Driven Explosion in Online Work and Learning


Presiding over an online platform with 82 million learners and hundreds of millions of course enrollments gives Jeff Maggioncalda a unique view of what’s happening around the world in higher education and training. What he’s seeing is growth and opportunity. The Coursera CEO says the number of people accessing its catalog of thousands of courses and certificate programs from top universities and corporations nearly doubled in the pandemic, with women driving up the numbers and consuming STEM content at an increasing rate. Coursera’s newly released Global Skills Report, based on data from 100 countries, shows the most sought-after skills are in business, technology and data. But the most important development coming out of this challenging year, he says, is that access to learning and jobs is becoming much less dependent on location. “We’ve seen that online learning allows anyone, anywhere to have access to high-quality learning. I think remote work, spurred on by the pandemic and digital jobs, will allow almost anyone, anywhere to have a range of job opportunities that they would never have had.” Maggioncalda is also encouraged by the growing power of certificate programs to unlock access to degrees and careers, and the creative institutional collaborations enabled by Coursera’s content and commitment to partnerships. You won’t want to miss this lively conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan packed with insights into the increasingly accessible, affordable and stackable world of upskilling and education.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and health care explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

It’s been an especially eventful year for Coursera, a leading provider of access to higher education content and credentials from universities and corporations around the globe. Coursera currently has 82 million learners and more than 200 university and industry partners. Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera CEO, took the company public in March. In addition, it issued yet another Global Skills Report which draws on performance data from its learners to benchmark skills proficiency in business technology and data science across 100 countries.

Jeff, you and I go back and share Stanford Business School in common. Thanks for being with us.

Jeff Maggioncalda: Van, it is really a pleasure to be here and to see you again. It’s amazing…all these years, and here we are working together on important things.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Wonderful. Now, Jeff, before you joined Coursera as its CEO, you founded an online investment technology company called Financial Engines. As another data point, Western Governors University’s CEO came from Amazon. Is there a pattern that we should read into this in terms of looking at the future of higher education and higher education leadership?

Jeff Maggioncalda: You know, first of all, the founder of Financial Engines was technically Bill Sharpe, who was a Nobel Prize Winner, and is far more brilliant and accomplished than I. I was just the first employee and the founding CEO.

Van, your question might be a little bit playful, but I think there might be a little something to it. Here’s what maybe the little something is: we are learning as a global business environment that there are certain business models, certain kinds of businesses, that have an ability to speed and scale that is almost unprecedented. This kind of business model is a platform business model. A platform business model is one where the company doesn’t produce the goods. The company helps other people produce value, gets a lot of consumers to come, and then matches those consumers up with all those value producers. Amazon’s clearly one of the best examples of an online platform marketplace. Coursera, also, is an online platform marketplace.

The neat thing about these business models, in my opinion, is when you have a huge problem with lots of variety, it’s hard for any one company to solve all those different problems. If you have a whole world of people creating — in this case at Coursera, creating courses, content, projects, and degrees — they can solve a lot more problems because it’s not up to Coursera to solve the problem. It’s up to Coursera to create a community to solve the problem. That’s why we think so much about collaboration at Coursera.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Jeff, because you have the bird’s eye view to the community and the range of problems, what do you observe to be some of the biggest shifts in the online and skills learning landscape since the onset of the pandemic?

Jeff Maggioncalda: Well, a few things. I’ll start with the obvious and then hopefully get to something that’s less obvious that will be more interesting to your audience. The obvious one is 1.6 billion students had their schools close in April 2020, and so we saw a massive shift towards not just online learning, but online teaching. Every student was forced to try out online learning. Every teacher was forced to try out online teaching. I would say that there are pros and cons, clearly. I think people have learned that just turning on a Zoom camera and lecturing online for hours can create a level of fatigue. But it also put a lot of focus on high-quality asynchronous learning, which is what we’ve been doing with our university partners on Coursera. I’d say number one, it was a huge experiment towards teaching and learning online. We saw 4 or 5 times more people taking courses on Coursera in 2020. We grew from 47 million registered learners at the beginning of 2020 to 77 million by the end of 2020 — so 30 million in one year, almost doubling.

The next major thing that we’re going to see that I think is going to have a huge impact is not just working from home because of the pandemic, but the persistent and pervasive phenomenon of remote work. What remote work is going to do, I think, is it’s going to really complete the opportunity. On the one hand, online learning allows anyone, anywhere to have access to high-quality learning. I think remote work, spurred on by the pandemic and digital jobs, will allow almost anyone, anywhere to have a range of job opportunities that they would never have had because those jobs don’t have to be in your own city or your own state or even in your own country.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: That makes me curious for even your staff and employees. How are you future-proofing the skill sets of your employees, given this?

Jeff Maggioncalda: It’s a few things. It’s sort of hard skills and soft skills. We’re clearly hiring lots of software engineers. We’re hiring them not just in the U.S., but in Toronto, Bulgaria, India. We have a lot more data scientists. We are training everybody on data skills. I don’t care what your job is, you must know data. You need to know basic statistics, how to read a chart, how to present data visually because that’s the language of decision-making and communication. We’re doing a lot of that.

On the soft skills, it’s even more interesting, in my opinion. We decided at Coursera that once we shifted to work from home, which we did on March 6, 2020, we decided we would never require people to come back to an office. On that day, we said, “If we try to do that, employees will quit. They’ll go to some other company that’s going to offer more flexibility. We’re going to beat them to the punch and we’re going to offer the flexibility.” It was kind of easy when everybody was in the office, and it wasn’t even that hard when everybody moved online. When some of the people start moving back to the office but others do not move back to the office that, I think, will be the hardest management challenge. Part of future-proofing our workforce is a combination of hiring from a global talent pool, not just people who live next to an office, and teaching managers how to manage a distributed remote team globally.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: What a great insight. That’s a good segue to your Global Skills Report. Tell us more about what you are seeing on the global front.

Jeff Maggioncalda: Where this report comes from is that we have hundreds of millions of course enrollments. When you take a course, you actually have quizzes and tests in the course so we can actually see who is getting the questions right and who’s getting the questions wrong, and then you can start making inferences about whether they know something and at what proficiency level they know it. A lot of the Global Skills Report simply comes from how proficient our learners are on Coursera from a certain country at a certain kind of skill, whether that skill is Python programming, web development, or blockchain. What we do is we just look at the proficiency of all the students and determine where they live and then we create a ranking of countries based on the proficiency of learners in that country in a certain domain.

What have we seen? We have seen, first of all, that the top skills that people are interested in fall into 3 categories: business skills, technology skills, and data science skills. At least on Coursera, that’s what a lot of people are coming and looking at. We have a ranking of the top skills in each category that are most popular and people are looking for the most. Of course, we ranked all these countries on those skills.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: The fact that Coursera has such a richness of content has allowed even Futuro Health to be able to create novel partnerships, and really unbundle and re-bundle course work for many institutions in order to help communities pathway into health care jobs. For example, Coursera had the Google IT content and was helpful in bringing Johns Hopkins University to the table to create the health care context with these jobs. I just wanted to express how appreciative we are for that partnership.

Jeff Maggioncalda: We are equally appreciative, and partly for the learners that we’ll be able to serve together. When I say together, I mean Futuro, Johns Hopkins, Google and Coursera. I think more broadly what’s exciting about this to me — as part of that platform that we had talked about — is once you get hundreds of institutions creating content on a platform, you can start recombining that content and creating institutional collaborations. I think that what you are doing is really a model of what’s to come, which is generally in the category of institutional collaboration.

We think a major part of what’s going to serve learners well is when you can get a university like Johns Hopkins that knows health care very well, a company like Google who knows technology very well, an institution like Futuro who understands the needs of an industry, the jobs available and the skills required, and can pull this together on a platform like Coursera that makes it broadly available and accessible, in terms of affordability. I think this is a model of where things are heading.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: In working with over 200 university partnerships, do you see more universities looking in this direction and thinking about stackable credentials?

Jeff Maggioncalda: Totally. We see it everywhere. We have 160 universities and 60 industry partners. Companies like Google and some of the most elite universities in the world. They have published — together with the industry partners — about 5,000 courses. We call that the public catalog. The public can come to and you can see all these courses.
What’s happening now though, I think, is very exciting. We’ve launched a product called Coursera for Campus. We did this in October 2019, and it’s for every university in the world — even if you’re not a Stanford, Duke, Yale, or a Johns Hopkins. They can license these online courses and make them available to their students. You could say, “Well, that’s nice. You can license them like a textbook,” but that’s still just the elite universities providing content for all the other universities. We said, “Wait a sec. We’re going to do something else. We’re going to let any of the universities, even the customers, author content as well. It won’t be in the public catalog, but it will be privately available to all of their students.” They are starting to mix and match public content from top universities with content that they create themselves for their own students. This way, you could really make it more custom-tailored to the region. We think that there’s going to be a lot of mix and match stackability, where you could take courses from multiple universities and it will still count towards a credential like a college degree or a professional certificate.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Oh, that’s very interesting. You’re saying I could actually create a Futuro Health catalog?

Jeff Maggioncalda: Yeah. Futuro Health can say, “Okay, there are 5,000 courses out there. I want to curate a few hundred of these courses for it to be available to my learners,” and then you can say, “Oh, by the way, I also want to build some of my own courses,” which is free on Coursera. We call it private authoring. You can offer private content for your members, if you will, for free, deliver it to your members for free, and you can even mix those things together. There could be, say, a course from a top university or Google, and then a hands-on project that you build that teaches individuals in the health care industry how to use a certain piece of software, maybe for patient records or how to do coding for certain types of pharmaceuticals. They could be custom projects that are paired up with public courses.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Jeff, if we look at the Strada Consumer Insight-Gallup Polls, what it indicates is that adults are very nervous about pursuing degrees at this moment in time because everything is in flux. They’re more attuned to doing skill development. Now, the concern is that people can get strapped into skills that then don’t lead to the earning power of degrees. How is Coursera thinking about degree attainment in the continuum of your portfolio?

Jeff Maggioncalda: Well, it gets right back to what you were talking about, Van, which is this notion of stackability. That might not sound super clear, but when you think about the power of this, it’s pretty incredible. If you look, for instance, at that Google IT support certificate – and we also have them from IBM, Facebook, and Salesforce; we have one coming from Intuit; we have one from Futuro — it starts with the job. They say, “Okay, we want to figure out, what’s a high-paying, entry-level digital job, where there’s more demand for the job than a supply of talent,” and then they say, “All right, what skills are required for that job? Can you learn them fully online?” What Google did is they created a four-course certificate program that assumes no college degree required and no prior experience in IT. You can go through this program and get the skills to become an IT professional. Now, what’s really cool about this is Google and Coursera have actually established a number of hiring partnerships. We can introduce learners to companies who are looking for IT support professionals, and so that creates what we call a career pathway.

There’s another pathway, too. We call it a degree pathway. It turns out that the way we designed this, if you finish the Google IT support certificate not only do we help introduce you to the entry-level jobs, but for instance, the University of London has a Bachelor’s of Computer Science on Coursera and they will actually award 12 units of academic credit from that Google certificate if you go and get a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. Earning that entry-level professional certificate is actually a gateway to a job and degree, as well. There are over 2,000 students studying for their bachelor’s degree in the University of London program. Twenty-five percent of them took that Google professional certificate to start with. These professional certificates are a stepping stone to jobs and degrees.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Bravo! What a great model. I was particularly interested to see that despite the exodus of women from the U.S. labor market, women are pursuing online education at a higher rate than pre-pandemic. What do you make of that?

Jeff Maggioncalda: Well, I think it’s really one of the few promising trends that we are seeing. To your point, we’ve definitely seen that the impact of the pandemic on working women has been far worse than on men. It’s far worse on non-Whites than on Whites. Not everyone has borne the brunt of this pandemic the same. I think women often are faced with the challenge of doing work from home when the kids can’t go to school. Someone’s got to care for them and it often fell to the women for a lot of reasons which have a lot to do with gender roles and maybe earnings power, but a lot of it is also just societal expectations and biases.

At Coursera we saw that even as women dropped out of the labor force — which is not a good thing for our country’s prosperity — the percentage of women on Coursera went up. The percentage of women taking course enrollments went up. If you look at the total number of course enrollments, it went from 42% of enrollments in Coursera from women in 2018/2019, to 55%. It jumped 13 percentage points globally. When you look at STEM, just the technical courses, the number of enrollments from women was 35% in 2019. It jumped to 47% during the pandemic in 2020. More women on Coursera, more women taking more courses, and more women taking STEM courses as a percentage of total enrollments than we saw before. Perhaps the future doesn’t look so bleak if the women are actually skilling up to get these really high-paying digital jobs.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: What I’m hearing, Jeff, is that the Coursera platform is not only adult-friendly, but it’s also specifically female-friendly, in terms of the need for flexibility.

Jeff Maggioncalda: It is. If you think about a lot of institutions — now we’re getting a little bit philosophical here — institutions are created to serve a certain kind of population. Often, there are physical plants and logistics that go along with it. You could think of a college campus, manufacturing plant, or office high-rise building. Those institutions don’t always serve all prospective members of the institution equally. What you realized, for instance, is one of the differences has become obvious: there’s a greater parenting load that falls on women than men. If there are institutional biases that make it hard for someone to work if they’re also caring for kids, that’s going to hurt women.

There are transportation inequalities, as well. When any college says, “In order to complete this course, you need to drive to this place at this time, and stay here for this number of hours,” that makes it hard for someone who doesn’t have a car, is caring for parents or children, or maybe they’re working to support their family, sometimes with multiple jobs. Online learning provides a lot more flexibility and affordability to serve more people who have not been served by the more traditional institutions. That’s my view of it.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Let me close out here, Jeff, by asking you this question. We have a lot of workforce development professionals in our listener base. What advice do you give them as they think about the 5-year and the 10-year time frame, and the future work?

Jeff Maggioncalda: There are a few highlights I would hit. What we saw during the pandemic, obviously, was a major tragedy. Many people died. Many people have been economically harmed. There’s a lot that we need to recognize as the negative side of it. There are a couple of promising openings that have been created. The opening to do online learning and job re-skilling. We’ve worked with hundreds of government agencies now who have never really tried online re-skilling programs, and they’re realizing that the cost, scale, flexibility, affordability, efficacy… there’s a lot of value to doing online training. The first thing I would say is, online training and re-skilling is a great tool kit for workforce development agencies that maybe they didn’t really appreciate so much before.

Another thing I’ll just put out there, too, is a lot of people think that when you say online it means only online. It doesn’t. We’re working with many government agencies who are delivering online programs together with on-the-ground, face-to-face mentoring and peer support for certain populations. Everyone can have an online backbone and certain populations can also get wraparound services, the help, the coaching. They’re not mutually exclusive at all. That’s one thing I’ll say.

Another thing I would say is — and this might even be the more important one — my view from what I’m seeing at Coursera as an employer, and what I’m hearing from a lot of other CEOs that I know, is that many jobs, especially digital jobs, will be available remotely. That means if you’re trying to get people in your state employed, you have a number of reasons to look for online, entry-level, digital jobs. There’ll be jobs as plumbers. There’ll be jobs to do a lot of things. I’m not saying don’t do vocational, but there’s something very special about entry-level digital jobs. One is, they pay well. Two is, there’s a lot of demand for these jobs. There’s a lot of openings. Three, you can learn how to do them online at a very low cost. Four, these jobs will be available to people in your state even if the jobs are not located in your state. I think that is a complete game-changer, and it opens up all kinds of opportunities.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thank you so much for your insights, Jeff. Wonderful to have you today.

Jeff Maggioncalda: Van, it’s always a pleasure, and I’m so glad to be working with you guys.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.