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Rick Levin, CEO, Coursera

Rick Levin was the longest-serving president of Yale University, before moving into the edtech space in 2014 to become CEO of online learning giant Coursera. Here he talks about the evolution of online learning, the rise of fees, and how the US can learn from other countries that are using MOOCs to upskill their workforce.

The PIE: Why did you choose to move to Coursera?

"We’re providing great universal access for people who’re stuck mid-career, who see a course as an opportunity for real change"

RL: Principally because the mission truly appealed to me and it resonated with what I had tried to do in my time at Yale, which was to open up the university’s teaching resources to the wider world. Coursera’s mission is to reach anyone anywhere to enable them to transform their lives by access to the world’s best learning experience. I think that’s what we’re providing: great universal access for people who’re stuck mid-career, who see a course as an opportunity for real change, or a person who’s never had an opportunity to go to a top university who builds self confidence simply by learning they can master courses offered by these universities. I found it very inspirational.

“In 2007 at Yale we started putting full courses online. Compared to Coursera that was very crude because it was just a camera in the back of a classroom”

The PIE: Was it a conscious decision to encourage the development of online courses at Yale?

RL: Very much so. I got started on it in the year 2000 and we did a little experimental consortium with Oxford and Stanford, offering online courses to our alumni. It wasn’t a big enough market and streaming technology was in its infancy, so videos were not high quality, so that didn’t work, but then in 2007 we started putting full, semester-length lecture courses online, all the video content plus the syllabi and so forth. Compared to Coursera that was very crude initially because it was just a camera in the back of a classroom.

The PIE: And I understand you made internationalising the university a priority as well.

RL: That was a major thrust of the last 12 years of my presidency or so, from taking more undergraduate students from abroad, moving that percentage up from 2%, it was appalling, to 12%, and then creating all kinds of study opportunities for our students, and really building up the international alumni community.

The PIE: How are fee-paying courses changing the MOOC landscape?

RL: Our fees are astoundingly low compared to what universities charge for residential programmes. The typical price of a [fee-paying] Coursera course is $79, and where people are particularly willing to pay for the credential is where we bundle the courses into Specializations, which are sequences with a capstone project, and typically those are some discounted version – four courses plus a capstone project, might be $400-$350, something like that – that’s where most of our revenue comes from now, from people seeking those credentials which are increasingly recognised by employers as worthwhile, and where learners are posting these credentials online, whether they’re on LinkedIn or on other job sites.

The PIE: Is that where revenue growth is?

RL: That’s where the growth has been, and that’s where the revenue is, the learners who are looking for skills in business, technology, data science, personal cognitive skills and personal growth skills, speaking and writing… people are mainly doing that for a career benefit.

“People tend to think that what we’re doing is reaching university students, but more than 75% of our learners are beyond university age”

Sometimes people tend to think that what we’re doing is reaching university students, but we’re not. We are, but more than 75% of our learners are beyond university age, and they’re accessing this as their only means to connect to higher education. It’s not an adjunct to their formal education; it’s something that is coming later in their careers, and either for intellectual curiosity as lifelong learners, they’re accessing the courses or because they have a definite career need, like half of our postgraduate learners tell us that they are taking these courses to advance their careers.

The PIE: Are you seeing more demand for credit recognition?

RL: That’s the next step for us – we’re not pushing the transfer of credit for the particular courses at the moment, but what we are focusing on is moving one level higher. Specializations are becoming meaningful employment credentials, and now we’re bundling Specializations into master’s degrees. So the University of Illinois is doing an MBA that will be effectively complete six Specializations out of these eight topic areas we’re offering and you get an MBA. That’s our first foray into this area.

We’ve just announced another degree from the University of Illinois in data science. We think that will be extremely successful because the demand for data sciences has skyrocketed since most people who studied statistics or business analytics, if they did it more than five years ago, they didn’t study the newest approach to it, because we didn’t have the computational power nor data sets of the scale we have today.

The PIE: Have you ever taken a Coursera course?

“I’ve sampled many Coursera courses. I haven’t completed any of them because I’m so busy, but I dabble”

RL: I’ve sampled many of them. I haven’t completed any of them because I’m so busy, but I dabble. I would recommend a couple: ‘Learning how to learn’ is this amazing course about neuroscience and how the brain works, and then it goes forward from there to teach you how to study. That’s our number one course by enrolment.

The PIE: Is it a source of frustration that such a low proportion of (non-paying) learners complete courses?

RL: Not especially. It’s improving dramatically – it started at 5% completion, it’s now closer to 15%, so we’re doing better in that regard. But it’s still the case that people shop – you go try it first, you watch the first week’s material and you go “no, I’ve nothing at stake; it was interesting but I’m not going to do it”.

The PIE: So what for you is a metric of success?

RL: I think our ultimate goal is to help people transform their lives in whatever form that takes, so whether it’s an autistic person finding that this is the first way they’ve effectively been able to learn from a teacher, of which we have numerous stories, for us that’s powerful; or whether it’s a woman escaping an abusive relationship in Bangladesh who uses Coursera courses to learn the business skills to start a successful bakery. Those are all stories that we cherish and we think are unique – not the normal thing that universities do, but a really important achievement.

We have also measured success – our survey last year of 50,000 course completers, which was published in the Harvard Business Review, demonstrates that first of all that the population is split into those seeking career benefit and those seeking educational benefit, and most of those, 52% of learners were looking for a career benefit. Of those, 87% were satisfied that they’d received that benefit; 33% had a material benefit, like a promotion, a raise. It was very impressive.

The PIE: A few years ago Coursera was opening physical learning hubs around the world. Is that an area you plan to expand?

“Over time you’ll see more importation of Coursera courses so that the online material is used as a supplement to what happens in the classroom”

RL: We did try to develop that idea, but there are two places where it’s really been implemented well: in US embassies in developing countries where the education attaché typically organises groups to come and use the facilities where they have low bandwidth so they can do the actual online study there, and they use local Coursera learners to be facilitators in the courses and in live discussion.

The other place we’re using learning hubs is in Latin America, where both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Lemann Foundation in Mexico and Brazil respectively are essentially creating learning hubs for underprivileged learners to get more support for courses.

The PIE: Do you think there will be more crossover between MOOCs and physical learning spaces in future?

RL: I think that’s limited; it happens in a couple of other ways. I think that over time you’ll see more importation of Coursera courses and their adoption by universities so that the online material is used as a supplement to what happens in the classroom, the so-called blended learning approach. Right now it’s mostly the instructors who create the material who use them in their own teaching. So that will happen, but our primary emphasis is reaching learners who are on their own, who are independent, for which more direct interaction’s going to come online, rather than a physical presence.

The PIE: Having worked in academia for so long, and having served on President Obama’s science committee, what do you think are the big issues for international education in the upcoming US election?

RL: I wish people were focused on topics as important as international education, or education period. I haven’t watched all the debates, but the ones I’ve watched, the subject hasn’t come up at all. I’m hopeful that some of the innovations that are happening globally in using online education for workforce development might surface with some of the candidates – at least, we’ve been trying to get their attention.

“I wish people [in the US election] focused on topics as important as international education, or education period”

A model that I think is really interesting is Singapore’s new skills future tax credit – this was announced last summer and implemented in January, and the idea is to give a S$350 tax credit to each adult citizen over age 25 for use in education programmes that will advance career skills.

I think it was initially conceived as being for adults to have the opportunity to access courses at NUS and NTU and the vocational schools later in life, you go back and upskill – but we convinced the Singaporean government to qualify Coursera courses for this benefit, and so far it’s been implemented, we’re the most frequently searched provider and the most heavily enrolled provider.

The PIE: What kind of numbers are you seeing?

RL: It’s still small, because the programme just started and Singapore is after all only five million people, so it’s a fairly small learner community, but the model’s a great model, I think, to have government subsidies for workforce development, and with these low-cost online alternatives available, those subsidies, even at a level of just a few hundred dollars, can be significant.

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