Delivering Bad News

Posted on June 18, 2016 · 3 mins read

Disclaimer: Coursera is a competitor of edX (where I work). My views are my own, not those of edX.

Last week Coursera announced they’d be shutting down their old platform, removing some older courses. Hacker News and reddit went crazy and trashed Coursera. Ironically, Coursera made the right choice. They simply did a poor job of messaging their decision to learners.

Let’s establish some facts:

  • edX is a nonprofit corporation.
  • Coursera, despite using the domain, is a for-profit corporation.
  • Both types of corporations can make a profit. Nonprofit corporations simply commit the profits to their missions rather than shareholders.

Many of the folks posting comments assume that as a nonprofit (again, which it is not), Coursera should be happily sharing its collective knowledge with the world. That’s not how business works. In order to remain in business, and grow, you have to turn a profit. Sometimes that means making tough decisions, like scrapping older courses or platforms that cost more to maintain than the revenue they generate.

Running a site—really a collection of services—visited by millions of people around the world every month is not cheap. Besides the hosting costs (probably in the thousands of dollars range), there are also the engineering costs associated with developing the services and the actual course content. I imagine Coursera took a look at the numbers and realized the costs of continuing to host older courses outweighed the potential revenues. I cannot fault them for that.

The big issue is how they made the announcement. Learners who had been enrolled in the affected courses were sent an email stating the old platform would be deactivated June 30, 2016, making the courses inaccessible. Learners were also given steps to download the course content. I have yet to see the actual content of the email; but, that’s what I could piece together from what I’ve read online. No list of courses was included. No mention was made of the fact that some courses would be migrated to their current platform.

The email left users with a lot of unanswered questions. Coursera’s choice to make the announcement via email, rather than their blog, and not add an item to their support site left users without a mechanism to get those questions answered. Coursera essentially ceded control of the conversation to blogs and Internet forums outside of Coursera’s control. They did publish a blog post Monday, but it still fails to list which courses are being removed or transitioned. Had the blog post and/or some form of an FAQ been published alongside the email, Coursera would have faced much less backlash over this decision.

I applaud Coursera for continuing to offer free access to courses. You just need to get better about breaking not-so-great news to your learners. Publish the blog posts and support articles before you send the email. Include a bit of data (e.g. the old platform cost $X,000 per month but only had 100 monthly views) to help explain your decisions. Make it easy for us to understand the decision being made.