Coursera sits somewhat awkwardly on the border between traditional higher education and the Silicon Valley-forces working to disrupt it. The venture-backed startup based in Mountain View (near all those online giants like Google and Facebook) has partnered with more than 150 colleges and universities around the world (including the old and famous ones like Princeton and Yale). The colleges create course videos and assignments that are offered on the company’s platform for free—and students can pay for a certificate showing completion.
How’s that going? EdSurge talked with Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera (and former president of one of those big-name universities, Yale) about how the mega-courses known as MOOCs have changed in the five years since the start of their hype-filled debut. And he shares what lessons he’s learned working at a startup.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: I’ve heard folks at Coursera refer to your courses and microcredential programs as “products.” That word struck me, since many academics are worried that higher education is becoming too commercialized. Is there a tension between the for-profit structure of Coursera and the nonprofit mission of your college partners?
RIck Levin: The advantage that we bring as a for-profit company is energy and direction and access to a labor force that's highly talented. There's an energy about our being a for-profit Silicon Valley entity that will create other services for university partners.
Sometimes our partners say we are moving too fast because we're coming up with new features all the time, and we're experimenting with new pricing models, and each of these changes requires a lot of explanations from the university departments who customize them.
It has been five years since Coursera launched its first MOOCs. What do you think is the biggest difference as far as pedagogy between those first attempts and the offerings you have today?
We've been adding features over time to make the learning experience better. We're better, first of all, at helping learners find the courses they want and the courses they need to advance their careers. There's some new stuff going on which is really exciting about analyzing the content of our courses so that we can really pinpoint exactly what are the skills that are being taught in each one—and in each part of each course—so that we can help target good advice to learners about where they need to go if they are on a particular career path. That's extremely helpful towards a career-focused learner.
In terms of a general learning experience, I would say we have improved the quality of our discussion forums. Instead of one big mess, now it's separated into different topical threads. We can open and close different groups so if an instructor wants to create a discussion forum for a subset of the learners, let's say, the alumni of an institution, they can have their own private discussion forum. And I think we're improving our ability to grade assessments online. We can handle not just multiple choice, but mathematical expressions, and short coding exercises that can be auto graded. Even short descriptive sentences. I think we'll get to a point where we can do even better in terms of what can be graded without human intervention.
The business model that has evolved for Coursera is selling kind of mini-professional degrees—by creating series of courses for which the students can buy a certificate to show employers they passed. At the same time, we see signs that big employers are less willing these days than in the past to pay to send employees back to college and pay for that continuing education. Are we at a point where employees will be on their own to pay for professional development?
Both options are going to be made more available and more affordable. That is to say, I think we'll continue to see growth in individual learners taking micro-credentials on our platform and on competitive platforms. But what we're also seeing, now that we've entered into the enterprise business, is that both businesses and governments are seeing opportunity in sponsoring these courses for their employees.
What we're offering now is a an experience where companies can either select courses that they think are highly relevant to the skill development that they need. Or they can leave the option to the employees, but they are now aware of what their employees are doing. They can track them, and they can help guide their development. So, I think we're going to see that part of Coursera's business grow very rapidly in the next couple of years.
What's the biggest deal Coursera has made with an employer?
We haven't published numbers, but we have one deal where courses are being made with limited access to 140,000 people that are in the company. There are others that are in the tens of thousands of people who have access to our courses.
And increasingly governments are seeing the value of these courses as training programs for unemployed or under-employed or transitional military personnel or users who are having a hard time finding first jobs after university. So we've made a bunch of programs and programmatic connections with governments around the world to use our university courses as training materials for their populations.
And I think there's potential in the United States, particularly at the state level. We have one pilot program in the state of Maine right now. When you think about all the dislocation of people based on adapted technology and the need for the training and retraining—not only in the most highly-skilled areas but in the so-called middle skilled. I think this is a huge potential opportunity.
It seems like you've found a model to serve students with these practical, career-related courses—data science is your most popular major. But how committed is Coursera to the liberal arts (I'm guessing, those may not even pay for themselves as far as the cost that goes into them)?
Our partners are welcome to put all the liberal-arts content they want onto our platform in the form of individual courses. I think they and we have come to understand that the typical user in those courses is going to watch the videos, but cares less about the assessment experience and the complete course experience. The number of students who pay for certificate is much, much lower in those courses, but they still attract very large audiences and we're happy with that. You know, the more learners that come to our platform,essentially the more valuable we are and the bigger contribution we're having essentially to society.
So, I think our plan is certainly to embrace the liberal arts. Obviously as a for-profit company, if we can figure out a way that we can monetize those courses without losing the vast audience we have, we would do it. We haven't really had the insight yet that allows that to happen, but that great content is out there and many people are benefiting from it.
One thing that I see a lot of interest in at colleges these days are flipped classrooms. But not many professors are actually using Coursera material as the video content for on-campus courses. More often professors are making their own videos. Why hasn't there been more uptake in using Coursera courses on campuses?
It is happening some, and I think it will have potentially bigger uptake around the world than in the United States. The quality differential is so striking, I think the faculty and universities will realize they can truly up-level what they're able to do by using materials from the top universities in the world. Most faculty feel pretty strongly about branding and shaping their own courses, and so I think in this country there's probably somewhat more resistance to using imported materials.
Do you have any leadership lessons? Having led Yale for so long, and now being in this Silicon Valley culture, what is something you've learned from your time now in a venture company, Silicon Valley type of company that you think could be a lesson for traditional colleges?
It's tempting to say there's some lessons for how an organization can be when nimble, a little more flexible, more agile. But you know, if you look at the long pull of history, the average lifetime of a Silicon Valley company is measured in years or decades, and the average lifetime of a strong university is measured in centuries. So our universities are pretty durable institutions. I think it's probably not a bad thing that these different organizational types have different ways of doing their business.
I took away some lessons at Yale about how to innovate within a university. For example, if you want to really do something innovative and substantially different within a university, it's really good to create a new entity. I mean, you get more innovation by creating an entirely new program with new leadership. And in fact, I did, often with a direct reporting into the president rather than through established channels, and that gives you room to take more risk than if you're set up inside a school or inside an established organization.