Former Yale University President Richard C. Levin is taking on a new role in education. The man who lead Yale for 20 years will in mid-April become the chief executive officer of the two-year-old online MOOC provider Coursera.
Coursera offers free online access to classes from more than 100 institutions of higher education — including Yale and Princeton universities — to millions of people around the world and has been run by two professors. MOOCs — or massive open online courses — have been hailed by online learning enthusiasts as a revolution in education, while critics say that such thinking is hyped.
Levin has been serving as an advisor to the education company since January, a role that he said began through informal conversations with Coursera leaders during his current sabbatical at Stanford University. His new position gives Coursera a high-profile leader from the established education world who may be able to take it into its second chapter with more organization and focus. It was co-founded by two academics, Daphne Koller, the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and the Oswald Villard University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Andrew Ng, an associate professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.
Levin said that the move from the established Ivy League to the new world of online learning is not as big a leap as it may seem: “It’s the dissemination of human knowledge. This was traditionally done through published books and articles, but this is a far more immediate and direct way to take what goes on in a Yale or Princeton classroom and make it accessible to a multitude of students.”
He doesn’t believe online learning will replace brick-and-mortar schools but rather holds great promise for audiences who traditionally don’t have access to higher education, including workers over 30 and people in developing countries.
“This is literally getting to millions of people whose lives are being enriched and whose employment opportunities are being enhanced,” he said.
He has for years had an interest in online education. Yale first became involved in online education in 2000, in a partnership he helped start with Oxford and Stanford universities, but he said that the technology back then was rudimentary and not able to provide anywhere near the interactive experiences that Coursera now provides. He also helped launch Open Yale Courses in 2007, and supported an initiative to put Yale’s vast museum and library collections online for free use.
Asked whether universities should give students course credit for taking a MOOC, he said he wouldn’t answer for any individual university, but he expects that some will start to do so. He himself has taken a few MOOCs, including one recently on economics, which gave him the opportunity to use a function that allows the professor to speak more rapidly than normal. He noted that if he were to take quantum physics, he would avail himself of the option for slower speech.
With Levin’s ascension, Koller will become Coursera’s president, while Ng will become chairman of the board.