Coursera and edX Hire New Executives: What about online experience?

Today’s big news is the concurrent change in leadership at two of the big three MOOC providers. First, Coursera announced they had hired Richard Levin, former president of Yale University, to be the company’s new CEO. Besides being a big-name college executive, Levin also led (or at least was president during) the development of Open Yale Courses. As reported by the New York Times:

Mr. Levin, who has been an adviser to Coursera since January, has been experimenting with online education for years, beginning in 2000 in a partnership with Stanford and Oxford. In 2007, he started Open Yale Courses to make dozens of classes taught by Yale professors available without cost.

“The main thing we will work on is to establish this model so our partner universities feel that offering large-scale MOOCs is an important part of their mission that helps faculty expand their reach, and benefits the world,” Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Levin, who has extensive experience in China, will also work on expanding Coursera’s presence there. Already, he said, China is the second-biggest source of Coursera enrollment, after the United States.

Meanwhile, the Coursera founders and previous president are taking on new roles. Daphne Koller will become president, Andrew Ng will become chairman of the board of directors and chief evangelist, and Lila Ibrahim will become chief business officer.

On the same day, coincidentally, edX announced they had hired Wendy Cebula as the company’s new president and chief operating officer. According to the company’s web site:

EdX, the nonprofit online learning initiative, today announced the appointment of Wendy Cebula as the company’s president and chief operating officer. Ms. Cebula will assume the day-to-day management and oversight of the nonprofit’s operations, while current president Anant Agarwal will become edX’s CEO, focusing on its strategic direction, growth and partnerships.

The appointment of Ms. Cebula, a former Vistaprint executive, comes as edX continues to grow, expanding users, courses and partners. Ms. Cebula will help to build out and scale operations to accelerate edX’s next phase of growth. The company currently provides a world-class destination site for learning and an open sourced platform, embraced by countries, institutions and companies around the world.

By looking at Ms. Cebula’s LinkedIn page, however, her most recent endeavor has been as an advisor to Gemvara, an online jewelry retailer with sophisticated e-commerce approach.


It is somewhat interesting that Coursera, a VC-backed company in Silicon Valley, has hired a former president of an Ivy League university while edX, an Ivy League non-profit organization, has hired a professional marketing services executive.

I think the hiring of Levin by Coursera speaks volumes about their need to further integrate with and support elite universities while targeting international expansion. The hiring of Cebula by edX speaks volumes about their need to grow through marketing.

What is missing, however, from all of the big three MOOC providers, is extensive executive experience with online education. There’s value in not being overly tied to the models and history of online education over the past two decades, but there is also a significant imbalance in not leveraging the experience of those leaders who have created and shepherded online education in credit-bearing programs. It is somewhat baffling that we are not reading about these MOOC providers trying to hire executives from community colleges, where much of online education is focused, nor from OpenSUNY, University of Central Florida, Penn State World Campus, Rio Salado College, Colorado Community College Online, UMUC, any of the for-profits, etc. If you look at the top leadership of Coursera, edX and Udacity, there is only one person with extensive online education experience (Udacity’s Clarissa Shen from Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix).

Below are the basic org chart for Coursera, edX, and Udacity – with labels including name, title, and most recent or significant previous employment. I have not added positions such as legal counsel or financial officers.






Stanford, MIT, and Yale are all excellent schools, but just 3.6%, 0.2% and 0.1% of their students take any courses online, according to 2012 IPEDS data. Compare this to approximately 26% of students taking any online courses across all US institutions.

I think that all three of these MOOC providers suffer from a huge lack of understanding of what it actually takes to make online education work based on two decades of experience.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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