From Yale to Coursera

Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, announced today that Richard Levin will be coming on board as CEO. Levin was president of Yale University for 20 years before stepping down in 2013.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

“Technology,” Levin said in the press release, “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. 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.”

Levin first made contact with the company a few months ago as an advisor to Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company currently partners with 108 educational institutions in 19 countries. They offer 600 free courses to 7 million users from every country in the world.

Despite this success, Coursera, along with all other MOOC platforms, faces major existential issues. Levin is well suited to tackle them. “Levin’s a major fundraiser, so this could see Coursera win far larger amounts of VC and other support,” Bryan Alexander, the senior fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and a futurist specializing in learning and technology, commented on the announcement. “He’s also a consulting economist, so he’s probably going to try and solve the xMOOC economic sustainability problem.”  (Alexander uses “xMOOC” to refer to the courses created by the big MOOC platforms, as opposed to cMOOCs organized independently around the web).

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

Infographic shows Coursera's growth as of October 2013.

Infographic shows Coursera’s growth as of October 2013.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a  “Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track.

But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting.  In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

Rick Levin

Rick Levin

The second, and related, big looming question has to do with Coursera’s relationship to the educational establishment. Its university partners, which include some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, have shouldered most of the cost and effort of content creation, which can be as much as $50,000 per course. Supervising a MOOC with tens of thousands of students can be a lot of work for professors and TAs.

Their return on this investment is still unclear. Is it primarily a way of attracting new students (an example of the “freemium” model applied to universities)? Or piloting new ways to teach? There are questions about intellectual property–does a professor who leaves one university get to take her MOOCs with her? Some universities have repurposed Coursera content in for-credit offerings. Does the Coursera signature track compete with their own continuing education courses?

Attracting new partners was easy when MOOCs were the flavor of the month, but going forward Coursera will need to provide a solid value proposition to its universities and convince them that their missions are aligned. It is here that Levin can really shine. He’s not the first university president to join an edtech startup–Bob Kerrey, who went from the New School to Minerva, is another example. But, as Alexander says, “It’s a serious commitment from this guy, who has a global reputation.”

MOOC platform Coursera falls afoul of US sanctions

At least since MIT Open Courseware started in 2001, users around the world have been enjoying free and open digital educational resources. It’s consistently reported that around three-quarters or more of users of MOOC platforms Udacity, Coursera and edX come from outside the US, from nearly every country on the planet.

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

Until now.

Coursera, which has 21 million users in 190 countries, announced on its blog on January 28 that its online courses would no longer be available to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Not coincidentally, these countries are under US economic sanctionprohibiting any American business from providing goods or services. While Coursera had been operating under the assumption that its courses, which are free to users who do not select a “freemium” option such as Signature Track certification, did not violate these economic regulations, the federal government apparently found otherwise.

“We are a US-based company, we have to comply with US law. However, we’re fully committed to having access to as many countries as possible, and we’re actively working to make that happen,” Coursera founder Daphne Koller told me in an interview.

In an open letter to his students posted on the Coursera website, Iranian-born Professor Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, at the University of Copenhagen was a little more outspoken about the decision.

 I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!

In a fourth country, Syria, Coursera initially suspended access, before discovering an existing exemption in the sanctions for educational resources. Koller says that they are working intensively with the US State Department to get a special license for the remaining three countries as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, would-be students who sign in to Coursera and whose IP addresses identify them as being from one of these blocked countries will be able to browse the courses, but not enroll or watch any of the videos.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

So far, Coursera, a for-profit, seems to be the only MOOC platform that has been flagged for violation of these sanctions. The company has an existing relationship with the State Department to offer “Learning Hubs” combining MOOCs with face-to-face interaction at US embassies around the world.

The descent of sanctions raises an important issue in the political and economic future of digital educational resources. MOOCs are often touted as a means to overcome the vast disparity in global access to education. But dozens of US universities are investing significant resources to create and run MOOCs–by some estimates, $50,000 to $100,000 per course. Public institutions, in particular, have a taxpayer-supported mission to serve the people of their state first and foremost. This mission is challenged by the trend of universities recruiting large numbers of out-of-state and international students who are willing to pay higher tuition bills. It might be equally challenged by the phenomenon of MOOC platforms based in the US that primarily cater to the needs of millions of foreign students.

What is the proper division of resources and priorities here? One proposal is that the US government specifically support the creation and dissemination of open-licensed digital educational resources for the good of everyone on the planet. Nonprofits might have a role too.

By coincidence, Coursera yesterday announced a strategic partnership with the charitable foundation of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire whose other investments include the New York Times, to expand educational opportunities in Latin America. The Slim foundation previously partnered with Khan Academy, and offers its own open courseware site Academica.

The Coursera partnership includes translations of courses into Spanish, focusing on professional development in areas like health, education and technology, plus the creation of a network of in-person “learning hubs” throughout the region. The Slim Foundation already operates 3600 “digital libraries” in Mexico; at some of these locations, facilitators will be hired to help students discover and succeed in Coursera courses, and the programs may involve the use of volunteer tutors as well. This initiative marks a move from an online-only MOOC model to one that recognizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. “What we’ve found is that when there is a protected space for facilitated discussion, this can lead to significant increases in retention,” Koller said.

However, these opportunities will not be available to Spanish speakers in Cuba, at least for the time being. The protection of “protected spaces” for intellectual development only goes so far.

Coursera founder phones it in at open education conference

Coursera Infographic

#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?

Hope someone warned Ng that he can’t toe the standard Coursera line for #OpenEd13 talk. They have been doing this a lot longer than he has.— Amy Collier (@amcollier) November 6, 2013

Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”

Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera– have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.

–I’m hoping Ng’s keynote is actually a bunch of short videos with intermittent quizzes. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013

Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.

–Why isn’t Coursera openly licensed? Ng says that its content creation costs too much money and that wouldn’t be sustainable #opened13 (sigh)— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.

@jonbecker our analytics have determined your diminished interest and have now dispatched mentors to keep you engaged. #opened13— George Siemens (@gsiemens) November 6, 2013

His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.

–Oh the irony. Andrew Ng is Skyping in for his keynote at #opened13. So we’ve been asked to turn off devices to save bandwidth. MOOOOOOC!— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.

Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.

–Sorry Dr Ng, but there are heaps of people who create engaging online learning inexpensively. Too bad you couldn’t meet them at #opened13— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 6, 2013

These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.

@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013

As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?

This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.

–I’m dropping out of this keynote. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013