Yale’s gamekeeper turns poacher with a difference

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Prof Richard Levin

Richard Levin says traditional universities should embrace MOOCs, not fear them. The CEO of Coursera tells John O’Leary that online courses can bring particular benefits to the developing world.

Richard Levin surprised many observers when, a year after stepping down from a record-breaking presidency at Yale University, he emerged as leader of the first and best-known provider of MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Yale, after all, was the epitome of the privileged, traditional university, while MOOCs were the upstarts that were going to threaten the very existence of such institutions. Needless to say, Professor Levin did not see it like that – and while he is making a success of the post of chief executive officer of Coursera, the hyperbole that surrounded MOOCs at the time of his appointment has died down, for the moment at least.

Coursera now has more than 140 partners in higher education – including leading universities from around the world – and is collaborating rather than competing with them. “What universities are seeing is that this is a way of reaching far larger audiences, disseminating outstanding materials,” Professor Levin says. “I doubt that we are a threat to them – eight of the ten oldest institutions in the world are universities, so they can look after themselves.”

The developing world, where huge populations are creating unprecedented demand for higher education, provides the main target audiences. Professor Levin says: “In Brazil and India, for example, the participation rate in higher education is 10–12 per cent, whereas both are aiming for 30%. It is the leap that China made from the 1990s to now. Where will they get the resources to build all those campuses and fund the facilities? We can augment their work and maybe stop some of those universities having to be built.”

Professor Levin does not claim that MOOCs can replicate the campus environment that students and parents value, but he argues that there are significant advantages to the online model. “In the longer term, universities might be able to lower their costs and leverage their facilities more effectively by using online material as part of their programmes,” he says. “The flipped classroom and blended learning use online as the textbook. There is a way conceivably where we can expand the staff/ student ratio and reduce costs. It is going to be slow coming because there will be natural reluctance to change in this way.”

In the meantime, companies have begun to embrace the approach. Professor Levin says: “We have offered companies the opportunity to use courses as part of their training programmes. They see the value of higher-level material – a four-week course with a Nobel prize-winner is a good deal.” Coursera has since announced the launch of a workforce development platform, Coursera for Business, which will offer many of the same courses found on the original platform, but “curated” to a company’s training needs. Axis Bank, BNY Mellon and L’Oréal are some of Coursera’s first corporate customers.

In the West, only 20–25 per cent of Coursera’s students are in the normal university age range. Half are in their twenties when they begin courses, while 80% have first degrees. In the US and UK, 70–80 per cent are over 22; in India and China, the figure is 65%.

“The market is really among people who wouldn’t otherwise come back to university,” Professor Levin says. “Most are using the material to advance their skills or promotion prospects. If you need to upgrade your skills, it is a perfect medium.

“A larger and larger fraction of the workforce is computer literate but need upskilling in information technology, for example. There is also a lot of usage in universities, with students using this material to supplement their own. And college applicants are using MOOCs to deepen their knowledge and demonstrate their prowess.”

He adds: “The original concept and part of the mission is to make the whole range of human knowledge and scholarly endeavour available to anybody. That’s still true. There is a rich array of courses in the sciences and liberal arts, as well as more specialist courses.”

Coursera’s audience has been global from the outset, with 75% of users from outside the US. China and India now each account for 8% of users, the UK and Brazil 4% each. More translations into Spanish have been introduced, while some courses are available in Russian and Chinese. But the most intense usership is in English-speaking countries, with Singapore the highest of all.

Professor Levin says: “We are seeing amazingly high levels of satisfaction – we had a media course which scored 4.6 on a 5-point scale. It is interesting that online material is so appreciated – not just the content but the social experience and so forth. What makes the courses useful is that they aren’t just quickie one-hour programmes on using a spreadsheet.

“One of the most interesting differences between our courses and those at universities is how quickly we can test something and maybe abandon it and make something else. That’s because we may have the experience of a million users to go on. In microeconomics, I would set an exam and find that students did rather poorly because they just hadn’t understood the concept. The first opportunity to improve it was a year later. On the internet, we give instructors the performance on every question and we can see when students are dropping out of the course. We can experiment and change the question or the video within two weeks.”

Reflecting on his own transition, Professor Levin says: “My own involvement was serendipitous: I was on sabbatical at Stanford and was approached. I was a great supporter of online experiments at Yale, where we did a lot of open access courses. I appreciated that this was something of great social value and professors really liked the idea of teaching students all over the world.”

Coursera has been selective about the universities it works with and intends to remain so. “We want to make sure our courses remain high quality while expanding gradually,” he says. “We are looking first of all for the best in country, such as the University of Sao Paolo and Unicamp in Brazil.”

Thus far, the main problem for all providers of MOOCs has been the high dropout rate. Professor Levin says: “We work constantly to try to improve the likelihood of completion, but you can enter for free and decide it’s not for you. Fifty per cent never start the course, or watch the first video and drop out, so the ceiling is 50%. After a full week, 40% will complete and if you pay to be examined, well over half complete.

“The numbers are still improving. We would be very disappointed if we had those kinds of numbers for degree programmes. The University of Illinois MBA, which is our only full online degree, gets 98% completion. On any course, we send emails if a student is not active for a week.”

Not that Coursera is contemplating its own undergraduate degrees at the moment. Daphne Koller, the company’s president and professor of computer science at Stanford University, has said that such a development might be possible “one day” and admitted that the furore over the perceived threat to traditional universities posed by MOOCs had been valuable in alerting students to their potential. But the focus will be on professional and postgraduate courses for the foreseeable future.

A dozen American universities, including Columbia and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, recently launched “micro-masters” courses through Coursera – equivalent to between a quarter and a half of the course material from a typical master’s degree – that students can finish by taking a series of short online courses. They are likely to be the first of many at this level.

At the same time, rising interest in flexible, career-relevant education among adults has resulted in a 50% increase in new registrations in the UK over the past year, with almost a third accessing courses on their smartphones. “Learning is not just an activity for the young anymore,” Professor Levin says. “The most active online learners are professionals, mums, and dads with many commitments, and a desire to proactively make a significant change to their lives.”

Richard Levin – known universally as Rick – was the longest-serving Ivy League president when he stepped down from the leadership of Yale University in 2013. Prior to assuming Yale’s presidency 20 years earlier, he was dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He chaired Yale’s Economics Department and had been a member of the faculty there since 1974. He became the chief executive officer of Coursera in 2014 and served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.  He is a director of American Express and C3 Energy.  He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Rick received his bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University and studied politics and philosophy at Oxford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Letters degree.