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Out in Front, and Optimistic, About Online Education

Online Education


The New York Times

LONDON — Besides his name and email address Richard C. Levin’s new black-and-white business cards contain just two short lines of type: “Coursera” and “CEO.” Mr. Levin, the former president of Yale University, was named head of the online education company late last month.

With seven million registered users and 25 million course enrollments to date Coursera is the largest provider of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. A for-profit company, its main rivals include Udacity, another commercial firm, and edX, a nonprofit backed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But with its sole revenue stream coming from a small minority of students who enroll in its “Signature Track” — which charges a fee of around $50 to verify a student’s identity, and issues a certificate upon successful completion of the course — questions have been raised about how long its backers will have to wait to see a return on their investment.

In a recent interview, Mr. Levin predicted that the company would be “financially viable” within five years. He began by disagreeing with Andrew Ng, Coursera’s co-founder, who described Coursera as “a technology company.”

Q. Why is the former president of Yale going to a technology company?

A. We may differ in our views. The technology is obviously incredibly important, but what really makes this interesting for me is this capacity to expand the mission of our great universities, both in the United States and abroad, to reach audiences that don’t have access to higher education otherwise.

Q. Yale has not exactly been a mass institution.

A. No, but we were early in the on-line arena, with a venture back in 2000 called All-Learn.

Q. How much did you lose, and why didn’t that spoil this for you?

A. It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience.

But Coursera, by being an aggregator and having attracted so many universities, means that the traffic that flows to these courses is far larger. A couple of courses that have been on the Open Yale website we’ve repurposed as Coursera courses this year.

Q. When you had them as Open Yale courses did you offer certification?

A. No. We put the lectures on, and the course material. But there was none of the interactivity or on-line forum discussion that’s all built into Coursera.

Q. It looks as if edX is going for a kind of exclusivity in the universities that make it up, while Coursera is not doing that.

A. I’m not sure that edX is more exclusive than we are. Their numbers are smaller — in part because we got a bit of a head start. And there are some schools that are trying both platforms.

Q. There are?

A. We don’t require exclusivity. We want to win by having the best technology and the best support for our partners, and we’re not trying to constrain them. We recognize this is an experimental period.

Q. How do you see the landscape of MOOCs — now and going forward?

A. Many schools started in this because they thought they could do something to improve their on-campus experience — by using on-line lectures to give students background, and then have them come in the so-called flipped classroom and have more active engagement with the instructor.

That’s a great thing. But to me that’s like saying that the purpose of movies is to film theater productions. It’s missing the fact that we have a new medium now. Films today don’t look like film versions of stage productions.

You’re now talking about extended student bodies that are numbering in the hundreds of thousands potentially, for most of our partners, whereas their campuses are in the tens of thousands. And within a few years it’s going to be in the millions, per school.

That’s what got me interested. If this were just about the flipped classroom I wouldn’t have decided to take this plunge. I see a completely new set of opportunities opening up for universities — and for individuals.

Q. Doesn’t edX have an advantage in being not-for-profit, meaning they don’t have to worry about returning on investment so soon? Yesterday Andrew Ng said, “We’ve raised $85 million, so we’ve got some runway.” How much runway?

A. I think the principal investors in Coursera understand that this is a long term play. We’re fortunate to have patient investors; and as Andrew said, we’re quite adequately capitalized. I think we can become financially viable certainly within that five-year framework.

Q. You’re an economist. How do you get from here to there?

A. Right now courses are free and we’re charging for certification. We think that as the idea of using Coursera courses for professional advancement grows, the numbers seeking certificates will grow. And the price we charge probably can grow, too. A move from $50 or $60 for Signature Track to $100 is certainly imaginable. At $100 a pop, if you had two or three, or five million people. …

Q. When you start charging more, and people expect more from their certificates, won’t differentiation between partners be more of a factor?

A. There’s no doubt that the number of student enrollments — and the capacity to produce revenue — is going to vary across our institutions.

Q. Because it’s very stark. You either get 10,000 people signing up for your course, or you don’t.

A. I’m not particularly worried about that. Relative to the revenue potential, the cost of producing these courses is such that I think this can be viable for most if not all of our partners.

Q. How much of this is about first-mover advantage?

A. Well, there are both kinds of lessons in the history of Internet companies. One is that first mover advantage can be substantial. The second lesson is that it can sometimes be overcome. Netscape [an early Web browser] didn’t survive.

Q. Right now your target audience is not people who want college credits. Do you think that will change?

A. I think there’s going to be innovation in every dimension. You’re going to see some of the Coursera partners offer credit for courses. I think that’s bound to happen.

Q. At their own institutions?

A. At their own, or accepting credits for Coursera courses taken at other institutions. We’re not pushing it. In that respect we are a technology company. So that’s for our partners to decide.

Q. What is the partner role in corporate governance? Do they have a structural role?

A. There’s a university advisory board, composed of academic vice presidents or provosts from a number — I think it’s 10 — of our partner institutions.

Q. When you were at Yale your base pay was in excess of $1 million a year. Are you taking a pay cut to come to Coursera?

A. I don’t want to talk about my personal package. It’s a startup.

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