Coursera Inc., a website that offers hundreds of courses to millions of people at no cost, has recently named former Yale University President Richard Levin as its chief executive officer. Coursera, along with competitors such as EdX and Udacity, pioneered the growing massive open online course (MOOC) initiative. Since its founding by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera has made significant progress in generating both traction and academic endorsement, and now boosts a broad range of course offerings from such universities as Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Michigan. Still, online education has faced strong skepticism from various factions within academic circles, with many raising concerns as to whether the decentralized nature of online education can establish a pedagogic quality equivalent to that of 4-year institutions. Coursera’s landmark appointment of Levin, however, promises to attribute greater credibility to education’s venture on the technological frontier. Even as the upper bound of online education’s qualitative benefits are being called into question, Levin notes that Coursera can leverage the internet to provide unprecedented access. “We’re going to address the needs of millions who don’t have access to that.”
The strategic appointment of Levin, who is also Yale’s longest tenured president, lends legitimacy to Coursera’s bid for more structured cross-institutional cooperatives. Coursera’s pedagogic mission has hitherto been hampered by large dropout rates – the completion rate of the website’s courses currently hovers at a dismal 10%. The appointment also hints at Coursera’s acknowledgement that any attempts to reinvent approaches to higher education will also necessitate a rediscovery of higher education’s traditional virtues. In this respect, Levin will be able to contribute by lending gravitas to further collaborative attempts with those in his extensive academic network, not least by luring traditionalists to adopt more cooperative approaches. A significant corollary is that Coursera’s programs may be placed on track for greater accreditation and public recognition. In addition, Levin’s distinguished international connections, particularly that with China, will accelerate Coursera’s attempts to incorporate a greater diversity of pedagogic perspectives. While at Yale, Levin helped established a program for undergraduates to study in Beijing and expanded Yale’s interaction with China. Levin was also elected to the board of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. China’s being Coursera’s second largest market, behind only the United States, also lends strategic weight to Levin’s appointment. By leveraging his strong international ties, Levin is poised to augment Coursera’s bid to eradicate geographic barriers to education and develop greater cross-cultural pedagogic exchanges.
If Coursera’s public mission may be extended beyond American borders, it is fascinating to imagine a future scenario in which education access keeps pace with increasing global connectivity. Will Coursera, or a similar counterpart, eventually accrue the means to tackle such issues as illiteracy? Today, there are 774 million people in the world who remain illiterate, including Africa which has a devastating 60% illiteracy rate. Even in the United States, a study conducted last year by the U.S Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy reported that 14% of the U.S population cannot read, which has remained constant for the past 10 years. With the growing influence of technology and access to the Internet worldwide, however, there is hope that increasingly connected societies can also become increasingly educated. People who previously lacked access to any level of education will have the opportunity to educate, and more importantly, empower themselves. Public communities stand to benefit from the alleviation of any burdens associated with implementing large-scale education infrastructures. If Levin and Coursera can leverage the internet’s increasing ubiquity and chart a course for reducing associated barriers to entry, greater access to quality education may translate into greater opportunities for social mobility.