The rise of the MOOCs: How Coursera is retraining the American workforce for a post-COVID economy

The human toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. is chilling: The death count has reached nearly a quarter of a million people. But in addition to a public health crisis, the pandemic has created the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression.

In April, the U.S. unemployment rate surpassed 14%. And while the numbers have since improved, what’s become clear is that many of the jobs that were lost aren’t coming back.

In this week’s episode of Fortune’s Reinvent podcast, we explore how the company Coursera—one of the biggest platforms offering massive open online courses (MOOCs)—is helping the American workforce reimagine itself for a post-COVID world.

The company was founded by two Stanford professors in 2012, who wanted to put their courses on the internet for free to give more people access to high-quality education. Coursera’s model has since evolved to also offer paid classes that let users earn certificates.

Now, during COVID-19, Coursera and its fellow MOOCs are experiencing a surge. CEO Jeff Maggioncalda says the company will probably have 30 million people signing up just in 2020 alone. “In some ways, COVID was like a huge required experiment with online learning,” he says.

The increase in users is coming from both people stuck at home with extra time on their hands, as well as from those who have been laid off or furloughed, Maggioncalda says. “This is a shock to the system due to COVID,” he says. “But there’s been a long trend toward job automation that’s been happening for years and years.” In response, people need to reskill for the slew of digital jobs that are emerging, he adds.

Science, technology, and business are the three categories of skills most in demand on Coursera. “We often say internally skills pay the bills,” he says. “That’s really what people buy.”

The company’s top course in 2020 globally is “The Science of Well-Being” out of Yale, followed by a class on machine learning from Stanford. No. 3 is a new course from Johns Hopkins University on COVID-19 contact tracing, driven by people who want training to become contact tracers. The fourth is English for career development, and No. 5 is “Learning How to Learn” from U.C. San Diego.

It’s not just individuals accessing Coursera either. Maggioncalda says the company gave Coursera for free to any government to help unemployed people during 2020 and has launched with 70 countries and 30 states in the U.S.

Democratizing education has been the vision of MOOCs all along—a goal COVID may end up accelerating. The pandemic has highlighted and increased inequality in many ways, Maggioncalda says, “but I can see a world where a few years from now, we look back, and we see COVID as having opened up opportunities for greater social equity in the States and around the world than we’ve ever seen before.”

Maggioncalda says that’s due to two basic tenets: people realizing they can learn anything from anywhere, and remote work allowing people employment opportunities outside of their communities. That is, of course, predicated on populations having access to the internet and a basic education in areas like writing, math, or statistics.

“One of the most exciting things about digital jobs is often they can be learned online, and they can be performed online,” Maggioncalda says. “I think that could have been a great equalizer of learning opportunity and economic opportunity post-COVID.”

To hear more from Maggioncalda and from Brookings’ Annelies Goger, listen to the episode in its entirety.

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