CNBC Disruptor 50

Online education company Coursera offers unemployed workers thousands of free courses

Key Points
  • The Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative is teaming up with state governments in the U.S. and the leadership of countries around the world to offer 3,800 courses at no cost from top universities and corporations, including Amazon and Google.
  • The free courses, which usually cost $399 a year, are focused on skills and professional certifications that will help out-of-work individuals find new jobs in high-demand sectors.
  • Coursera has added 10 million users in the past month as online education has surged, especially courses in data science, computer science, business and health care.
Eddie Rodriguez (R) and other City of Hialeah employees hand out unemployment applications to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library on April 08, 2020 in Hialeah, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Education technology company Coursera is pulling down its paywall for unemployed workers to give people who have lost their jobs around the world free access to education, as well as the ability to earn credentials.

The Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative is teaming up with state governments in the U.S. and the leadership of countries around the world to offer 3,800 courses from top universities and corporations, including Amazon and Google.

The initiative will give unemployed workers free access to education focused on developing skills to help them fill jobs that are in high demand. And instead of having to pay to earn a professional certificate, which can bolster a resume, any unemployed individual can earn professional credentials, like the Google IT Support Professional Support Certificate, that lead to on-demand tech jobs. These workers can take unlimited classes — which usually cost $399 a year — for free.

With 1.6 billion students now unable to attend their schools because of stay-at-home orders, Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said the need for Coursera's product is greater than ever, which is why they're pulling down the paywalls.

Coursera, which ranked No. 21 on the 2019 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, now has 56 million registered users around the world, up from 40 million a year ago. Ten million of those learners signed on in the past month, as the company has partnered with colleges, enabling schools to offer free access to Coursera's course catalog.

"We hope this initiative can serve many millions of impacted workers around the world," Maggioncalda said.

The program for unemployed workers is launching first in Illinois, Arizona and Oklahoma in the U.S., and the governments of Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Malaysia, Panama, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The plan is to quickly ramp up to a dozen states and a dozen countries. These governments will be able to contact people who have filed for unemployment with relevant online courses.

The U.S. economy has now wiped out all the job gains since the Great Recession, with levels of unemployment varying from state to state.

"The mission has always been to serve the world through learning. It was then; it is now," says Maggioncalda.

"At the state level or a county level, a government can invite small business owners to take courses on entrepreneurship or can invite another subset of people to take classes on information technology," Maggioncalda said. "They can target a collection of classes based on the need for certain types of jobs. ... Any number of unemployed people can be cranking through these courses, posting certificates, learning skills in business, computer science or any domain."

The rise in online learning

In the past month, Coursera's surge in traffic has been focused on data science, computer science, business and health care. Classes in the life sciences have seen a tenfold increase, while personal development has surged 18-fold in enrollments. A course called "The Science of Well-Being" from Yale University, which had 500,000 enrollments before 2020, now has been taken by 1.6 million people.

Maggioncalda says demand for Coursera's offerings for businesses is also holding strong — 2,300 companies subscribe to its professional learning program. "Especially when it comes to data science skills, computer science skills and leadership and management, we're seeing an increase in demand from businesses," he said.

Other online education companies are also making education available to laid-off workers for free, such as Udacity, which announced in late March it is offering tech education "nanodegrees" for free to individuals in the U.S. who have been let go because of the coronavirus. The average price for an individual signing up for a nanodegree is about $400 a month, and the degrees take anywhere from four to six months to complete, according to the company. 

Kaplan Professional, which offers continuing education for businesses and individuals in the financial planning, insurance, securities, real estate, engineering, architecture and accounting industries, also just announced it is offering free online training courses.

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