New Coursera chief stresses the ‘wow’ factor of huge audience for free online courses

June 23, 2014

A little more than two years ago, the emergence of massive open online courses wowed the higher education world. The sheer scale of the response to free classes from star faculty at prestigious universities boggled minds. A single professor was capable of reaching more students — topping 100,000, say — with one online course than she would have drawn in an entire career of lecturing on campus.

Then it was thought that MOOCs, the acronym coined for these massive courses, would shatter the business model of higher education. Then it was thought that the real purpose of MOOCs was to run huge pedagogical experiments to help universities improve teaching for tuition-paying students.

Richard C. Levin, the new chief executive of Coursera, the most widely used MOOC platform, wants to steer the conversation back to what grabbed public attention in the first place: the wow factor.

Sure, Levin said, the emerging technology will help professors stimulate students on campus who are tired of old-school lectures. The talk of “flipped classrooms” and “blended learning” — weaving MOOCs into classroom experiences — is not mere hype.

“But that is not the big picture,” Levin said in a visit last week to The Washington Post. “The big picture is this magnifies the reach of universities by two or three orders of magnitude.”

Levin took the helm of Coursera in April, as the company based in Mountain View, Calif., was turning two years old. An economist, Levin was president of Yale University from 1993 to 2013. He said he was attracted to the higher ed start-up by the prospect of engaging millions of learners around the globe.

“That’s why I decided to do it,” Levin said. “Make the great universities have an even bigger impact on the world.”

Coursera boasts huge numbers: 8.2 million registered users and 678 courses, from 110 colleges, universities and other institutions, such as the American Museum of Natural History. It draws revenue from some users who pay a small fee, typically less than $100 per course, to obtain a verified certificate for successfully completing a class. But Levin said this revenue is still not covering expenses of the private company. For “quite a while,” he said, Coursera will depend on venture capital. He said the company’s investors are patient.

“Nobody’s breathing down our necks to start to turn a profit,” he said. Eventually that will change.

Levin said, however, that “a couple” universities are covering their costs through shared revenue. He declined to identify them.

Among the participants are the universities of Virginia and Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.

With about 60 employees at the beginning of this year, Coursera now has about 110, Levin said, and expects to have about 170 by year’s end.

To be sure, there are plenty of other online educational ventures that are offering courses for credit at minimal cost. For example, the nonprofit University of the People advertises “tuition-free” associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs in business administration and computer science. Its students pay an application processing fee of $10 to $50 and a per-course examination fee of $100, with scholarships available for those in financial need.

What draws attention to major MOOC platforms, of course, is the global prestige of the university names associated with the courses.

But the curriculum of those MOOC platforms is somewhat scattershot. Coursera’s list spans the Economics of Money and Banking from Columbia University to Animal Behavior from the University of Melbourne in Australia.

A prominent competitor, edX, which was founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, offers The Science of Happiness from the University of California at Berkeley and Responsible Innovation from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

The range of topics is vast. Some schools are starting to offer sequences of specialization, including a cybersecurity package from U-Md. But Levin acknowledged what is offered doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent package of courses that would correspond to a major for an undergraduate in college.

“We’re starting to think about this,” Levin said. He stressed that Coursera itself is not a university. The schools that team with Coursera, he said, are the creators. But there will be “more give and take,” Levin said, between the company and the schools to help fill in educational gaps.

“I’ve seen a few holes in our curriculum,” Levin said. “But we are very mindful that we don’t want to be a university. We want to be a facilitator.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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