“Imagine there’s no campus, no fees or no desk too. Imagine all the students, taking exams from home…”

A rewrite of Imagine might be a good slogan for the latest companies investing in online teaching. Sure, John Lennon’s song was a praise to utopia, but Coursera – a start up providing university courses all around the world through a digital platform – seems very much bent on realizing its dream, not just in the US, but in Asia and pretty much the rest of the world, too.

The company is a product of California’s entrepreneurial culture. It was co-founded in April 2012 by Andrew Ng, a Professor of Machine Learning at Stanford University, with the aim of providing a new platform for online teaching. The idea “emerged from thinking of how you can make the university experience better” said Eli Bildner, product manager at Coursera. In the space of a year and a half, Coursera has managed to gather 92 partners, including big names like Princeton to École Centrale Paris.

Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, the Stanford University computer science professors who started Coursera. Pic: AP.

“Some institutions were very excited but did not really know what to make of it. Nobody was quite ready, but everyone was conscious of the possibility,” Mr Bildner told Asian Correspondent. According to public information, the company has seen more than 5 million students from all over world register for over 450 courses in a wide range of subjects, turning it into one of the world’s biggest major massive open online course (MOOC) platforms. Courses are taught for free directly by universities, and a “signature track” is available to students who want to get a certificate and are willing to pay the fee, ranging between $30 and $60. The value of these certificates in terms of employability and academic advancement is still the subject of much debate.

Expansion has been trickling all the way to the Far East. Already a partner of National Taiwan University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Chinese University of Hong Kong, earlier this month Coursera announced it has joined NetEase, a Chinese internet company which distributes open online education content, to launch Coursera Zone, a Chinese-language web portal. At the beginning of September, it had already found a powerful ally in the Middle Kingdom: Peking University, usually considered the breeding ground of China’s finest minds (and, a tiny historical note, of revolutions, too). Mr Bildner explained that the partnership is all about the availability of content and that all courses will still be offered on Coursera’s platform.

It is not surprising for companies involved in education to show interest in China. According to Mr Bildner, Coursera’s goal in Asia is to provide access to as many students as possible and help universities work together, which is made easier by the fact that Chinese institutions are already bent on achieving global status.

Challenges are twofold. One is that infrastructure is quite poor in China, which impacts the quality of services provided. And that’s where NetEase could help by providing faster services.

“The other issue is the heterogeneity of students around the globe. “In order to succeed and help both students and partners, we need to provide relevant content for everybody, as different students desire different things. In the US, for example, people take an interest in Coursera not least because of high tuition fees at universities. In China costs are a less of a problem. The attention is mainly on employment levels for college graduates,” said Mr Bildner.

If courses are all available for free, how does Coursera make money? “At the beginning, we were founded with venture capital money. We raised funds from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment arm of the World Bank. University partners helped with investments, too,” told us Mr Bildner.

A way of making the company profitable is through “signature tracks”, which require student to pay a small fee in order to get a proper certification at the end of the course. Basic courses are entirely free, but they only offer a statement of participation at the end. Signature tracks, instead, provide a verified certificate which can be presented to employers and academic institutions. The difference lies in the procedure used to identify students: if you go for the paid service, you have to take both a webcam picture of your ID and one of yourself in order to make sure that you are who you claim to be. On top of that, Coursera asks students to record their typing pattern, which is unique to each individual.

The company, in any case, is studying other ways to become more profitable. “We have done different things and we’ll keep on experimenting and trying to improve our platform,” said Mr Bildner. An idea currently under scrutiny is the possibility of helping companies improve their employees’ skills.