Jeff and Anne Maggioncalda had encouraged each of their three children to enjoy a gap year before starting college, so the couple decided they should replicate the experience in their lives. Little did they know it would lead to a new career for Jeff as a force of disruption in the education industry.
Anne is a former college professor with a Ph.D., in biological anthropology. Jeff, who earned the unusual double-major in English and quantitative economics from Stanford, was the founding CEO of Financial Engines, the online investment advice company co-founded by Nobel Prize-winning economist William Sharpe. After 18 years of fast-paced work in the financial and technology industries, Jeff Maggioncalda needed a break.
“Anne, my wife, was like, ‘Hey, we should go travel. We should do stuff together now that the girls are a little bit older,’” Maggioncalda told Walton College Dean Matt Waller on Waller’s Be EPIC podcast.
But two years into his planned three-year “gap” between jobs, Maggioncalda got an unexpected offer.
To paraphrase, it went something like this:
Recruiter: “Jeff, would you like to help change the world by changing the future of education?”
Jeff: “Well, sure. That sounds great.”
Maggioncalda had no experience in the education industry, but he and Anne had always prioritized life-long learning and they had seen the impact of it during their travels around the world.
“I thought, you know, education is kind of the root cause of goodness and human prosperity,” he said. “When education is more available, humans flourish. And the chance to try to put my time and talent on something that could impact a lot of people and deeply create, you know, social justice and opportunity for more people – I just thought that that was amazing. So I ended up begging for the job.”
He got it, and since 2017 Maggioncalda has been CEO of Coursera, the online learning platform that originated as an experiment by a couple of Stanford computer scientists. The platform began as part of a trend about a decade ago to create what were known as MOOCs – massively open online courses.
“The recognition at the time was that technology is allowing for the supply of high-quality education at much lower cost to a much broader audience,” Maggioncalda told Waller. “But sometimes I think people miss that the need for that is greater than ever, because the world is changing so quickly. Turns out, knowledge can change faster in a digital world than machines can change in the industrial revolution in the industrial world.”
The speed of information and change has led to dramatic shifts in how education is provided and altered the roles of universities and corporations. But while some have predicted the demise of institutions of higher education, Maggioncalda is among those who simply sees a rise in collaboration. In fact, Maggioncalda has come to agree with Pablo Novas of the University of the Andes in Colombia, who once told him, “The next great revolution in higher education is collaboration.”
Collaboration, of course, has long been important to researchers at universities, but the revolution is taking place on the teaching and learning side. And that fits lockstep with the trends in play at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, which routinely partners with industry to create and deliver educational content. In some cases, that involves professors teaching executive education, but it also involves industry partnering with the university to provide students with mentors, to provide real-world data, tools, and experiential learning opportunities, and to teach or speak to classes.
More and more universities are now collaborating with industry, including companies like Coursera that could be seen as competition by traditional colleges, and with other universities to create and deliver curriculum content.
Coursera, for instance, partners with more than 85 companies and 175 universities around the world, including US universities such as Yale, Arizona State, Duke, Michigan, and Rice. Courses offered through Coursera might originate with one of those universities, but they also might originate from the training division of a corporation and be delivered to students enrolled at a university.
“We have professional certificates and other types of advanced computing courses from Google and IBM and Microsoft and others that are being taught in universities that are subscribing to Coursera’s online courses and integrating not just other university courses into their curriculum, but also industry curriculum and hands-on skilling into their curriculum, as well,” Maggioncalda said. “So platforms are a great way to facilitate collaboration. And collaboration is a very good way to keep up with high rates of change.”
There’s an “incredible bridging,” Maggioncalda said, where universities and companies are creating content that is delivered on a platform to learners all over the world. Students enrolled in a university, for instance, might have the option of taking courses created and taught by a future employer. Or an online class offered by a university might have students enrolled who live in multiple countries.
“Platforms enable other people to create value and solve problems,” Maggioncalda said. “So our customers are using our platform and our partners’ content in ways that we’ve never conceived of; they’re solving problems we didn’t know existed.
“That’s, to me, one of the most exciting things about a platform that facilitates collaboration. It’s not that we can say, ‘We want you guys to collaborate so you can go solve that problem.’ It’s, ‘Here’s the platform. Use it to solve whatever problems you see emerging in whatever novel ways you can use our platform.’ To me, that’s really exciting. And I think that’s the kind of model that can help institutions keep up with this rate of change.”
Many of the changes to higher education, Maggioncalda said, are the result of market forces – employers who need graduates who are better skilled for the changes demands of a high-tech world and students who demand those skills because a big reason the go to college is to prepare for a career.
Today’s students don’t just need the traditional “three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but fluency in data, technology, and business. And the competition to provide that fluency, whether it's part of a degree or a micro-credential program, has never been stiffer.
“When degrees and educational materials can move online – not just the content, but the credentials too – suddenly students have choices,” Maggioncalda said. “And that’s going to create pressure, I think, on institutions to say, ‘I’ve got to make sure I understand who my customer is. I understand who (they are and) what they need from me, and I need to change my offering and differentiate to stay in business.’”
Higher education institutions, especially since the pandemic, are subject to more of the market forces that other industries have been subjected to for years. “There’s a whole new set of realities that academic institutions are living in now compared to five years ago,” he told Waller.
Those realities look like threats to many universities, but others are innovating to find a competitive edge that not only serves their traditional interests but benefits non-traditional students and creates economic opportunities that can make the world better.
That’s the motivating factor for Maggioncalda. He points out that education is one of the sustainable development goals set forth by the United Nations because education is not only a path to economic opportunity but to “global flourishing and protection” of the planet.
“Education is the source of understanding health and how to improve people’s lives, how to end poverty, how to keep our oceans clean, how to build stronger institutions,” he said. “And so now I’m really seeing that the job of Coursera is to advance the UN sustainability goals as quickly and as materially as we can. So my expectations have grown, my sense of responsibility has grown, and my sense of urgency has grown along with it.”