Massive Online Courses Find a New Audience With Continuing Medical Education

Massive Online Courses Find a New Audience With Continuing Medical Education

Applications are surging for New York University’s School of Medicine after the university announced last year that its medical program would be tuition-free for all students.

But NYU isn’t the only school trying to offer free medical training. Dozens of colleges and universities are taking courses in healthcare and medicine online—and making them free or low-cost—with massive online course platforms.

Coursera, a company that hosts massive online courses and degrees, is the latest entrant among a growing number of online education providers that are entering the medical space.

Today, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced it will be adding an entire healthcare vertical with 100 new courses and 30 new “Specializations,” or what the company calls its paid bundles of courses that students can earn a certificate for.

It is also announcing two new online degrees: a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Master of Public Health from Imperial College London.

“In terms of the existing [medical] workforce, there is clearly a shift in the skill set that is necessary,” says Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera. “The digitization of healthcare with more data and machine learning has created a skill set that many people didn’t study in school.”

To be clear, Coursera and edX are not competing with MDs or traditional medical school, which typically lasts four years before residency and can cost more than $200,000 at public universities. Instead, MOOC providers see an opportunity in helping medical professionals keep their knowledge and skills up to date after they graduate, a field also known as continuing medical education (CME).

“CME represents a significant market opportunity and we are exploring how we can meaningfully address this space,” Koller said. “We have as many as six partners as part of this launch who are CME accredited, and as we further evolve our health content, it seems like a natural next step for us.”

More than a dozen universities are offering Coursera’s new healthcare courses. The six accredited CME partners launching Specializations are: Columbia University, University of California at Davis, University of Minnesota, Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai, University of Pennsylvania and Emory University.

There’s much hype around the need for re-skilling workers for a changing economy. But in health and medicine, workers are more strictly obligated to complete CME credits, often every two years or so, in order to maintain their medical license.

Courses in healthcare and medicine have been available online for years. But this field has recently grabbed the attention of an array of online education providers and program managers. Lambda School, an online coding bootcamp, raised $30 million this month to begin offering courses in nursing and medicine. And Grand Canyon Education, the for-profit company that oversees online courses and programs at Grand Canyon University, recently purchased Orbis Education, an online program manager that specializes in healthcare.

EdX, a nonprofit MOOC platform, has similarly been offering courses from universities trying to reach a wider audience of medical professionals looking to satisfy CME requirements. Doane University, one of those partners, offers 24 courses in topics such as Healthcare Organization and Delivery Models and Principles of Health Law and Regulatory Issues. The courses are free but cost $99 for students who request a verified certificate after finishing.

Doane also recently began offering two MicroMasters, or a series of graduate-level courses designed by the university for credit, in Healthcare Administration and Certified Lifestyle Medicine, which cost around $1250 and $1340, respectively.

The school began offering its continuing medical education courses on edX two years ago. Since then, Butler claims the school’s edX courses have enrolled about 66,000 students from 171 countries. Similar to Coursera, which splits revenue from Specializations 50-50 with its partners, edX shares revenue from its paid offerings with the universities that create the certified courses.

Doctors or nurses looking to fulfill CME credits can attend conferences, in-person classes other existing online CME courses. The draw to host these courses on MOOC platforms, Butler says, is the chance to reach a wider audience.

Coursera has its sight set on a global health audience as well. Koller believes what will set MOOC-based CMEs apart from existing trainings is that “it provides access to a much larger and global audience base,” which could be attractive to both a provider looking to recruit more students, or students who can’t find trainings easily.

“Most offerings will put [a course] on a website and a small group can find you,” she says. “We have an audience of 38 million learners worldwide.”

MOOCs, The New OPM?

As more MOOC providers offer paid degrees in partnership with universities, industry analysts say they may soon compete with other online program management (OPM) companies, which schools can hire to help create and manage online courses and degrees.

“MOOCs are focused primarily on monetization and moving beyond free and open courses. The common thread tying these messy transitions together is the move to become new forms of Online Program Management (OPM) providers,” education writer Phil Hill projected last year on his blog, e-Literate.

Today’s announcement shows Coursera is not shying away from degrees in its business plan. But the company says it’s pursuing a different kind of business than other OPM providers like Orbis or even 2U. For one, the cost of these online programs can be on-par with their in-person counterparts. (A year-long Master of Public Health at George Washington University online costs around $74,700, for example, and nine months at the school’s in-person MPH is estimated to cost $60,900.)

Koller holds that Coursera has “deliberately gone in a different direction and is aiming at a larger audience.”