Coursera Conference 2021: Highlights and Takeaways

Coursera Conference 2021: Highlights and Takeaways

By Betty Vandenbosch, Chief Content Officer

I was honored to host our ninth annual Coursera Conference. This year’s virtual format enabled something extraordinary: thousands of people from around the world came together with one common goal: building a more just world together through education. We had more than 100 speakers from 60 institutions and 18 countries on our virtual stage. 

Where do I even begin with programming highlights? From the spirited discussion of the Visionary Panel—which provided insights into how we can bridge the skill gap in a post-COVID world—to Dr. Jason Wingard’s thought-provoking explanation of the forces transforming the world of work, every single session was memorable. 

Our opening keynote speaker, Dr. Tererai Trent, delivered an address that was both personal and powerful as she spoke on the importance of coming together to create opportunity through education. Born in the village of Zvipani in Zimbabwe, Dr. Trent recalled the economic and gender-based inequalities that kept her from getting the education she dreamed of and shared how the encouragement of her mother inspired her to pursue her goals of going to America and earning a bachelor’s degree—then a master’s, and ultimately, a PhD. Perhaps her most important goal, however, was to return to her community in Zimbabwe and improve the lives of women and girls through education. “Education is everything,” said Dr. Trent. “Education liberates. Education empowers communities. It creates economic growth. We need education. And it must be universal.” 

We couldn’t agree more. What an incredible way to kick off the conference!

Coursera’s CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda, contributed a memorable pair of sessions to the conference experience with his keynote and subsequent fireside chat. He described how Coursera is uniquely positioned to see emerging trends by collaborating with governments, businesses, and campuses all over the world—and spoke about how we can use our insights to create more opportunities and careers for learners from all walks of life. Jeff shared details about the different programs Coursera launched as COVID-19 swept across the globe, including the Coursera Campus Recovery Initiative, which helped universities quickly transition to online learning with free access to Coursera for Campus; the Workforce Recovery Initiative, which gave unemployed workers free access to content on Coursera through government partnerships; and ongoing social impact programs that coordinated with nonprofits and NGOs to serve populations who could otherwise not afford access to high-quality education. To summarize in Jeff’s own words: “This is the kind of impact that institutional collaboration can create. This is what inclusive recovery at scale looks like.”

The Coursera Product Innovation session was another conference favorite, as we shared learner stories and offered a glimpse into some of the key innovations we worked on over the past year to support learners, educators, and institutions:

  • Individual learners now benefit from personalized course recommendations, hands-on projects, improved accessibility options, and AI-powered support to help motivate and encourage them on their learning journey. 
  • Educators and instructors can import videos, quizzes, and other assets to re-use across courses. They can also connect Coursera to their institution’s learning management system and repackage content to create new, stackable credentials such as Specializations and Professional Certificates. 
  • Businesses, governments, and universities can help employees and learners develop in-demand skills to stay competitive in the workplace with smart solutions like SkillSets and Academies, which are designed to offer targeted skills development in every part of an organization.

For a more in-depth look at key product innovations from this past year, you can watch the session online

We were honored to present a terrific lineup of expert speakers at Coursera Conference 2021. Among these was Ericsson’s CLO, Vidya Krishnan, who shared her insights into preparing your company for the skills of the future. In her session with Coursera’s Kyle Clark, she outlined the equal importance of learning and unlearning—noting that all of us hold preconceived notions of shame that can inhibit our growth, and making clear that we must be willing and ready to decouple that shame from failure. Vidya stressed that this willingness to unlearn also plays a critical role in upskilling people across an organization. To ensure competitiveness, productivity, and inclusivity in the workplace, everyone must embrace the need for change, including the acceptance of new and different ideologies.

Change was an ever-present theme throughout the conference. In a discussion with Coursera’s VP of Data Science, Emily Glassberg Sands, Orange’s SVP of Data and AI, Steve Jarrett, talked about digital transformation and the challenges of upskilling in digital organizations. He specifically described how the need for skills, training, and cultural change led Orange to provide its employees with access to high-quality education. In doing so, the company was able to enhance its data and AI expertise and successfully implement the business’s transformation initiatives.

Of course, one of the crowning highlights of the conference was the Outstanding Achievement Award Ceremony, hosted by Andrew Ng. This year we presented five awards, recognizing innovation, campus transformation, talent transformation, career transformation, and putting learners first. Each of these winners exemplifies our shared vision of a world where anyone, anywhere, has the power to transform their life through learning. You can read more about the Outstanding Achievement Awards from Andrew Ng here. 

Even as we celebrate these accomplishments, we know there is still so much more to be done. According to the World Economic Forum [WEF], more than one billion people in the world need to reskill or upskill. The WEF’s objective is to do that by 2030. Let’s not forget that the world and the skills needed in 2030 will be different from those we know how to teach today. One billion is a lot of people. In order to help these learners acquire new skills, speed and scale are crucial. 

It is through collaboration between governments, businesses, and campuses all over the world, and the combined insights and efforts of leaders like those in attendance at Coursera Conference 2021, that we can achieve this essential speed and scale. 

Many of the 55+ conference sessions ran simultaneously. Any session you may have missed is available on-demand on the Coursera Conference website (login required).

Thank you to our presenters, panelists, and attendees for taking the time to participate in Coursera Conference 2021. I look forward to seeing you next year—for our ten-year celebration of Coursera Conference!