Yale’s ex-president isn’t worried that most of the people who take online courses drop out

The attire at a tech startup may be slightly less formal.
The attire at a tech startup may be slightly less formal.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
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Depending on who you ask, massive open online courses are either the future of education or chronically overhyped. Coursera, the largest provider of courses from Universities, got a big boost in image when it announced that Yale’s former president, Rick Levin, would take over as the company’s CEO.

Levin, an economist by training, led Yale for 20 years before retiring in 2012. He’s credited with significantly improving the university’s finances and safeguarding its reputation. Before retiring, he was the Ivy League’s longest serving president, and one of the United States’ best regarded university administrators. He was an early adopter of web courses, offering them to alumni as far back as 2000.

In a recent interview with Quartz, Levin spoke about his vision for online education. He says he took the job for the chance to reach millions of people, but sees the Coursera’s niche, for now, as a provider of skills and training within the labor market, rather than a way to reduce the price of post-secondary education. And while massive open online courses (MOOCs) are sometimes criticized for students’ low completion rates, Levin says that issue is badly misunderstood.

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: What is the attitude of university administrators to online education, and how will you get more of them on board?

Levin: I think the more important concern with universities is to really get strong commitment from existing partners, rather than focus on growing the number of them. That may happen over time, but lots of universities have already started to experiment with Coursera and I think its important that we’re serving them well, that they’re satisfied, and that they continue to create more content and put it online.

I do think that my coming on will help in terms of strengthening those commitments from universities. I have good relationships with so many of my counterparts around the world, and am hopeful that by having conversations with them, we can strengthen their commitment and engagement with Coursera.

Quartz: As an economist, does the idea of online education as a cheaper, more accessible option to private universities appeal?

Levin: I think that the immediate economic question in the near term is what Coursera can do for the labor market around the world.

Rather than thinking about online education as a substitute for what goes on in classrooms or as a cost reducer—which it may potentially be in the future, but which I don’t think is happening today—we’re reaching millions of students who don’t now have any other access to higher education or the credentialing that’s possible, by taking courses that might serve them to improve their careers.

One firm in Silicon Valley is actually paying its employees $1,000 each to take a Coursera course, Andrew Ng’s course on Machine Learning. LinkedIn now allows people to list Coursera course completion on their online resumes. To the extent that we can have a near-term economic impact, I think it’s going to be in the labor market, creating an opportunity for thousands and thousands of people, if not millions, to improve their training and skills related to employment.

Quartz: Do you see the very low completion rates for MOOCs as a problem?

Levin: I think it’s a misunderstood issue. The proper analogy to the completion rates that have been published, that 5-6% range, is to how many people graduate from Yale versus how many apply. That number is about 6%.

Take [Yale Professor and Nobel Laureate] Bob Shiller’s course in finance that’s being offered right now; 150,000 people registered. Only 80,000 actually ever watched the first lecture. Only about 20% or so complete the assignment at the end of the first week. People don’t have to make a commitment to paying for the signature track right away, so they go online and try the lectures out.

I think what’s much more relevant than completion rates is how many people that complete the first assignment actually finish the course. That’s 44%. The number that’s been circulated doesn’t do justice to what the actual process is. By the time it’s over, 8,000 to 10,000 people will have completed Bob Schiller’s course. That will be more students by far than he has taught in his 32-year Yale career. And you can repeat that every year.

Quartz: What about the possibility that institutions will make their own platform rather than use Coursera, like Harvard Business School is doing?

Levin: Yale developed more than 40 courses that we posted on the Yale website. We put them YouTube, iTunes U and other aggregators. Coursera generates far more traffic and enrollment. It’s a more than a [ten-fold] difference. Three of the courses Yale put on Coursera in the spring had a previous version on the Yale website, and the traffic is vastly larger on Coursera.

Coursera is an aggregator that has just a huge amount of content, that’s just going to grow. It has a huge advantage in scaling that no university can match.

Quartz: What was the personal appeal of this job?

Levin: That’s easy: It’s to reach millions of people. Yale provides an extraordinary experience, but it provides that experience to 3,000 graduates a year at all of its programs. There’s nothing like it in the world, in terms of what the world’s elite universities are able to accomplish with their students.

But it’s only a tiny number of people that get access to a Yale or a Princeton or a Stanford education. Coursera has the potential to take that same high-quality teaching and project it to millions of people. I find the whole thing inspiring.