Lately, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, have gotten a bum rap, with even some early believers, like Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun turning his back on the model altogether. But if you're one of the many who expect the MOOC model to flame out any minute now, some news today might surprise you. Mountain View, California-based MOOC provider Coursera announced Monday that it has hired former Yale president Rick Levin as its CEO. It is, perhaps, the biggest vote of confidence in the MOOC model to date, and indicates that MOOCs may yet have an important place in higher education.
Levin, a 20-year veteran of academia who stepped down as president of Yale in 2013, is exactly the type of person who you might think would be quick to cast aspersions on MOOCs. After all, as the one-time head of one of the world's most respected academic institutions, you might expect Levin to decry the subpar educational experience people supposedly receive by taking a MOOC. And yet the fact that he is not vilifying the model, but instead validating it, is as sure a sign as any that even lifelong academics see promise in the platform.
"Technology now gives us the means to extend the reach of high quality education around the world and to provide millions of people with access to learning and opportunities for advancement," Levin, who also serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, said in a statement. "Coursera is at the front of this effort, with a stellar team, a remarkable growth trajectory, and a purpose that is an unmitigated public good."
Coursera's founders, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, will stay on at Coursera, with Ng serving as chairman of the board, and Koller transitioning to the role of president. The founders hope that Levin will help them figure out how to "use technology to educate people at scale and how we can structure our business going forward," Ng said in the statement.
To be sure, Levin has his work cut out for him. Coursera, like most MOOC providers, has had moderate success sorting out a revenue model (Coursera charges students for identity verification and certificates of completion), but it will need to do a lot more than that to justify the $85 million in venture funding it's raised. Meanwhile, even if it is merely a public perception issue, Coursera will also have to find a way to improve its relatively low completion rates.
In a blog post announcing Levin's new role, Ng and Koller wrote, "We at Coursera still have a lot of room to grow, and much to do in the pursuit of an educational experience that empowers people to improve their lives, their families and their communities."