I have written two posts recently about Coursera’s appointment of the former president of Yale as the company’s new CEO, with the implicit argument that this move represents a watershed moment for commercial MOOCs. In particular, Coursera seems likely to become the third generation of Richard Levin’s dream, following AllLearn and Open Yale Courses. I’ve also argued that Levin is embellishing the history by making Internet bandwidth a primary factor in the demise of AllLearn when the lack of a viable business model was the more important issue, with even Levin arguing this point.
Richard Levin was just interviewed by Charlie Rose, and I am including a transcript of most of the segment (starting around 3:15), highlighting some key points in bold. This interview should give us further insight into the future of commercial MOOCs, especially as we have the first non-founder CEO in one of the big three commercial MOOC providers. Follow this link to watch on CharlieRose.com and avoid the annoying Hulu ad.
Rose: You could have gotten a government job, as an ambassador or something; maybe been Secretary of the Treasury as far as I know . . . you could have done a lot of things. But you’re out running some online education company (laughs).
Levin: It’s a fantastic mission, it’s really the perfect job for me and for following a university president’s [job].
Rose: Why’s that?
Levin: One, I like running things, so it’s an opportunity to run something. But most important it’s so much an extension of what I’ve tried to do. It’s to take Yale to the world, and this is an opportunity to take 108 of the world’s greatest educational institutions (and there’ll probably be some more) and teach the planet.
Rose: Before you go there, let’s get the landscape. At Yale you tried some online education. A couple of others have had . . . and there is a checkered past.
Levin: Well, there was a time of experimentation in learning. When we started in 2000 with Stanford and Oxford as partners, we thought our market was our own alumni so we sort of narrowcast over the Internet. Then we opened it to the public the bandwidth wasn’t there.
Rose: You mean the technical bandwidth?
Levin: Yes, this was still the era of your videos were jerking around, you remember that? So it had that problem, and we just didn’t have the right model for making it work. And also it didn’t have a high degree of interactivity. Basically you watched a lecturer give a lecture, and maybe there were some visuals, but that was it.
And then the next thing we did were “Open Yale Courses”, which basically were videos of 42 of our best lecture courses put out for free over the Internet, with support of the Hewlett Foundation. They were great, but very few people watched them from beginning to end. They were free. The materials of the course were distributed, but there were no quizzes, no exercises.
Now what Coursera has done has sort of recognized that first of all, we have greater bandwidth, we can support lots of people at once – taking quizzes, reacting to the material, getting feedback; having professors look at the data to see what parts students are having a hard time and improving their courses. So it’s a constant feedback loop.
It’s really terrific and the scale is immense. It’s amazing, we’ve had 7 million different people.
Rose: Separate the landscape for me. There’s edX, there’s Sebastian Thern’s [Thrun’s] thing, Udacity. How are the three different?
Levin: They’re all a little bit different, but those are three that are involved in this MOOC space [uses square quotes]. There’s lots of other things online. Many schools have had things online with closed enrollments for substantial tuition dollars for some time now.
What these three are trying to do is go to a wide open public, and putting courses out for free and getting hundreds of thousands of people to sign up for them.
Our approach and edX’s are pretty similar.
Rose: edX is Harvard and MIT?
Levin: edX is ‘Harvard and MIT want to do their own thing and not sign up with Coursera (laughs). At this time we have about three times as many partner institutions and three or four times the audience. It’s [edX] is a worthy effort, they’re doing a good job, and so are we, and we’re competing on what are the features offered for students. edX is open source software , which some of the computer science types like that – it means they can play with it, they can add to the features on their own.
But we’re developing interfaces that will allow faculty to add features as well.
I think it’s good there’s competition. I’ve studied innovative industries; before I became president of Yale it was my field. Competition is good for innovation, the products will get better.
Rose: But is the mission the same?
Levin: I think that edX and Coursera have very similar missions. It’s to have great universities as the partners . . . the universities develop the courses. We’re not a university, Coursera’s not a university. Coursera is a platform and a technology company that serves universities.
Rose: Backed by venture capital?
Levin: Yeah, but I think the key lesson here is the scale.