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Coursera Chief: Reach of Teaching Will Define Great Universities

In October 1993, in his first major speech as president of Yale University, Richard C. Levin talked about the importance of Yale’s becoming a “world university.” Great universities have a responsibility to drive global change, he said, and they achieve that primarily by nurturing future leaders and world-changing research inside their walled gardens.

This spring, after two decades at the helm of Yale, Mr. Levin took a job as chief executive of Coursera, the online-education company. His views on the responsibilities of the “world university” have not changed, but for a crucial detail: The great universities of the 21st century will not just teach an exclusive subset of the ruling class; they will teach everybody.

“In 10 or 20 years, when we judge the great universities, it will not just be on their research but on the reach of their teaching,” Mr. Levin told The Chronicle on Wednesday.

That perspective dovetails, of course, with the mission of the company Mr. Levin now leads. Coursera, which teams up with traditional universities to provide free, online versions of their courses, has its own lofty ambitions as a global-change agent: “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education,” reads the company’s mission statement.

To the extent that Coursera is helping universities expand the reach of their teaching, Mr. Levin’s redefinition of the responsibility of “great universities” as world-teachers is opportune.

Mr. Levin has taken over at a time when Coursera is still trying to figure out how to reach students who are underrepresented in traditional higher education. Last fall researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that people taking that university’s MOOCs tended to be better educated than the public—and that this was particularly true in foreign countries.

Part of the problem might be a lack of marketing to the sort of underprivileged students that Coursera wants to reach—a possibility that Mr. Levin acknowledges. Coursera “has not contemplated advertising” on television, billboards, or similar mass media, he said. In foreign countries, the company has been trying to get more coverage in the media, but has not actually paid to market its courses to would-be learners from less-privileged classes. The company is only now in the process of hiring a vice president for marketing.

Mr. Levin also spoke about Coursera’s efforts to develop revenue streams to sustain its financial health—as well as the patience of its university partners, who shoulder the bulk of the costs of developing each course and who get only a fraction of the revenue. The most significant source of revenue for Coursera and its partners continues to be the company’s Signature Track program, which offers “verified certificates” for a fee to students who complete certain MOOCs.

In its contract with the University of Michigan, Coursera lays claim to 85 to 94 percent of gross revenues for MOOCs that a university offers on the company’s platform, as well as 80 percent of gross profits on “the aggregate set” of courses from that university. (Mr. Levin said the company might soon revise the revenue-sharing agreements with its partners.)

In May, however, researchers at Columbia University published a paper noting that many university stakeholders are unclear about why they are investing in MOOCs. The authors anticipated that some institutions “will struggle to justify the expense and effort” of devoting resources to developing free online courses.

Some partners are “impatient for revenue,” Mr. Levin told The Chronicle, but others have seen their MOOCs generate good returns. The Coursera chief would not say which universities have made the most money from their MOOCs, but he did mention that the courses that tended to generate the most revenue are those that “focus on skills”—especially in the fields of business, data analysis, and computer science.

MOOC learners in the Signature Track program still account for less than 10 percent of all registrations, said Mr. Levin. Still, the company’s new chief executive believes that, based on internal projections, Coursera will be able to break even within “a couple of years.”

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