Reports Of Massive Disruption To Higher Ed From MOOCs Greatly Exaggerated

Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera and former President of Yale University

Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera and former President of Yale University

When Rick Levin left Yale University two years ago as one of the Ivy League’s most successful presidents in history, he imagined taking a year-long sabbatical, writing on economics and higher education, and perhaps getting back into the classroom to teach.

After a 20-year run as Yale president, Levin certainly deserved some time for introspection. But a casual conversation at a New York City party would lead to something quite different than a return to class. After informing an investor of his admiration for a relatively new Silicon Valley startup, Coursera, the online learning platform and advocate of massive open online courses (MOOCs), Levin found himself speaking with founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Initially signed up to be a part-time advisor, Levin was soon offered the larger role of CEO which he took on just over a year ago in April of 2014.

His first year has been a whirlwind, putting the 68-year-old educator at the forefront of a revolution in higher education. Just this week, Coursera announced the first MOOC-based MBA degree with the University of Illinois College of Business. In February, Coursera launched a series of “specializations” in which a school offers a sequence of courses along with a capstone project. Among the most compelling specializations was an offering of four core MBA courses from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Overall, in fact, Wharton has had almost 1.5 million registrations in MOOC courses on the Coursera platform. In the four courses in Wharton’s Business Foundations specialization, the school has racked up 50,000 completions, with almost 25,000 students earning Verified Certificates in Wharton’s marketing, accounting, finance, and operations courses. At a cost of $49 for each certificate, that alone translates into more than $1.2 million in revenue, split equally with Coursera. More recently, however, the cost for a certificate in each of these core classes has risen to $95 with the introduction of the specialization sequence.


All told, the Coursera platform now boasts 1,027 courses from 119 partners, including the business schools at the Universities of Michigan and Virginia, IESE Business School in Spain, the Indian School of Business in India, and HEC Paris in France. More than 12.8 million learners have registered for the courses, including more than 1.5 million for Wharton’s more than a dozen Coursera-MOOCs.

Online learning was not foreign to Levin when he joined Coursera. In fact, as president of Yale, he was instrumental in launching Yale’s foray into online education, first in partnership with Stanford and Oxford, and later with Open Yale Courses. Just before leaving his job, in May of 2013, he also played a key role in furthering Yale’s partnership with Coursera.

Poets&Quants recently sat down with Levin in a conference room at Coursera’s headquarters in Mountain View, where Google also makes its home. In our interview, Levin pooh-poohs predictions that free online courses are going to put many universities out of business anytime soon. Far more likely, he says, employers will begin to recognize the value of online credentials and reward employees for having them with promotions, pay increases, and new opportunities.

True disruption to higher education, believes Levin, will take many years and largely impact commuter colleges not known for deep engagement between students and faculty. For universities that sit on the sidelines, there could be significant consequences. Levin predicts that global rankings of universities are likely to take into account the number of people in the world touched by a university’s professors. That would a global university’s status and prestige partly dependent on a school’s reach which can greatly be expanded through online learning.

You’ve just celebrated your one-year anniversary as CEO. Were there any surprises when you first took on the role?

One of the surprises was how few other universities had yet grasped the potential in the broad outreach that MOOCs make possible. We did them at Yale in 2007 and one of the obvious benefits was enhancing access to education. It was to give opportunity to tens of thousands of people who wouldn’t have had it. About 73% of our learners are outside the U.S. and about half of those are in emerging economies.

When I first came on here, I was surprised to hear the prevalent thinking that MOOCs was thought to enhance the quality of on-campus teaching. Many of my old buddies didn’t get it. The main deal is that millions of people can gain access to your courses. There has been a big change in this last year, partly because these are bright people and they are seeing the results. An instructor spends his or her life studying a subject and their mission in life is to advance knowledge in a field and disseminate it. Before it entailed touching a few hundred lives a year. This is a huge multiplier of that.

I recently showed data to an official at Rice University on the number of people who have completed Rice courses on Coursera. And he told me, ‘that is more people than the total number of graduates in the history of Rice.’ So it’s very cool.

And yet there have also been dire forecasts for the eventual impact on the business model of delivering higher education. Rich Lyons, dean of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, has publicly predicted that as many as half the business schools in the U.S. could shutter in as little as five years or as many as ten. How disruptive do you think this is going to be?

We are still at the stage where it is expanding the market rather than substituting for educational offerings. The biggest effect is in bringing new learners in. Three-quarters of our learners are over the age of 22. They are beyond secondary and college years. Most of them are working and they are using it primarily for career advancement or personal enrichment in equal proportions. That is not a hugely disruptive thing at this point. That is additive, an enhancement to what we provide.

The evidence is beginning to be very clear that if properly managed and done strategically, online learning can be a net revenue enhancement. MOOCs can increase the visibility of a university, generate revenue from learners who buy certificates, and serve as lead generation to master’s and other programs.

Over time, there will be a tendency for institutions of higher education to want to use some of these high quality MOOCs in their own instructional programs. But it will take time and there will be institutional inertia that will make it slow. If we look over decades, sure disruption will happen.

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