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Online education is all the rage these days, with startups like Coursera and Udacity offering free and cheap courses from top universities to anyone with an Internet connection.
One of the greatest challenges facing these new education providers is retention rates. People are rushing to sign up to cool courses — who wouldn’t want to learn about Greek and Roman mythology from an Ivy League university professor? — but without a network of supporters and/or a tangible reward, few students are finishing their classes.
Palo Alto, Calif-based Coursera is experimenting with ways to boost student engagement and completion rates. The business development team is forging relationships with employers, who might be willing to offer a bonus or promotion to workers who complete certain courses — that’s the reward aspect. Yin Lu, the head of growth and international strategy, is taking a slightly different approach.
In a phone interview, Lu introduced the Coursera “Learning Hubs” program, which adds a social layer to online learning. People who sign up for courses in a number of cities will be offered physical spaces to access the Internet while learning alongside their peers.
Lu was inspired by the story of a customer from Ohio, who emailed the Coursera team to describe how she rallied women in her home town to take a course. The group convened at a local community center to learn about business strategy from a professor at the University of Virginia. The majority of the participants were unemployed at the time.
Over 60 percent completed the course, and two of the women landed marketing jobs.
“We talked a lot about the idea of turning knowledge into something that is really impactful for people, [and] their friends, family and community,” said Yin.
Students will not pay additional fees to join the learning hubs program and co-work with friends. Instead, Coursera is building partnerships with local organizations that can provide the space and resources for free.
One of the most prominent partners is the U.S. Department of State. Overcoming Faith Academy in Kenya, the Learning Links Foundation, and other global institutions have also signed on. These spaces will typically reside on university campuses or embassies in countries ranging from Moscow to Manila.
“Together we hope that we can identify new models for blended learning and in-person learning,” said Meghann Curtis from the U.S. State Department’s Academic Programs, in a statement to the press.
Coursera is looking for additional partners and may even be hiring a few folks to spearhead this new initiative.