You are here

Bringing knowledge to the masses

Coursera CEO Richard Levin is at the vanguard of a move to democratise access to high quality education.

'Google is the place you go to search. Amazon is the place you go to shop. Facebook is the place you go to share. Coursera aspires to be the place you go to learn throughout your life.'

THE names of three leading universities - Stanford, Oxford and Yale - grace the curriculum vitae of Richard Levin. He has degrees from all three and from 1974 to 2013 he taught economics at Yale and was president of the august university for 20 years, from 1993-2013. The soft-spoken Dr Levin is a quintessential academic with pedigree and a career that very few can match. Many would have been satisfied with a fulfilling career, after stepping down as president of one of the great learning institutions of the world, and look forward to a quiet retired life. Not Dr Levin. Now in his late 60s, he is at the vanguard of a movement that is set to revolutionise the world of learning. As CEO of Coursera, his mission is to democratise education so that the best quality courses are available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, for free.

Coursera, founded in 2012, is a category leader in what is known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). It aims to provide high-quality learning content and accessibility to students from anywhere in the world, through partnerships with over 130 top universities, including National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Coursera now offers 1,100 courses to nearly 15 million learners, more than half of whom seek skills to advance their careers and livelihoods.

The MOOC market is expected to grow in excess of US$50 billion this year and expand exponentially over the next few years, driven by the proliferation of connected devices, increasing acceptance of MOOC-based training in enterprises, as well as demand for low-cost, high quality and globalised education.

Dr Levin is particularly fond of the "15 million users" number. He notes that Yale University, in its 300 years of existence, has not yet tallied a million students who have gone through its gates. "I was showing the president of Rice University data on his Coursera courses. I showed him that there were 55,000 people who had already completed courses from Rice through Coursera. That is more than the total number of graduates produced by Rice to date," he notes with a smile.

In a more serious vein, Dr Levin says the democratisation of education is providing millions of people access to resources that were previously available only to a privileged few thousands. "An analogy is the printing press, which made written language and written publications available to a larger group of people. In the modern Internet age, we are doing the democratisation of education in the same way."

Despite having spent much of his life as an academic, Dr Levin has a vision that is full of Silicon Valley vigour and credo. "Google is the place you go to search. Amazon is the place you go to shop. Facebook is the place you go to share. Coursera aspires to be the place you go to learn throughout your life."

Impact on labour market

Dr Levin is quick to point out that MOOC, such as those offered by Coursera, will not supplant the importance of a good degree from a reputable university, at least not any time soon. However, that's not to say that MOOC are not useful or are just a fad. "In the near term we are going to see the impact of these courses on the labour market," he says, pointing to the fact that today's typical 20-year-old, unlike their parents or grandparents, will be doing 13-15 different jobs throughout their working life.

People all through their careers will need to upgrade their skills and learn new things, says Dr Levin. "The only way to get that, short of going back to school for a Master's degree, would be going online and getting the skill sets from courses like those offered by Coursera and other similar platforms. You get the state-of-the-art opportunity to catch up and learn. I think the near-term effect will be in the labour market where you see people upgrading their skills."

In the long term, says Dr Levin, this access to education will become a way of life in a knowledge-based society. "When you are 30-35 years old, you are using these materials to get a better job. When you are 55-60 years old and you have peaked in your career, you are using this for personal gratification, to learn about certain subjects that you didn't learn at school." And for retired people, this will be an extraordinary asset to enrich their lives. More satisfying than watching TV, he adds.

"I think it will not replace the degree-granting universities. And universities may use these courses much more than today. Right now, the people who create these courses typically use the videos in their classroom. They have the students watch these videos rather than have the students come into the classroom and watch these lectures."

While Dr Levin is clear that MOOC will not dilute the value of university education, he's convinced that it is going to have a profound impact on the quality and methodology of teaching in the very best schools. "What happens in a classroom today does not look much different from what happened 50 years ago except there's PowerPoint slides. And it's still largely one-way and it's often the professor going on too long and half of the students losing context and interest. Before, they used to read the newspaper and now they look at Facebook."

Many of the techniques Coursera uses for its online video courses are spilling back to the universities. There is a lot of research that says that the 50 or 70-minute lecture format with one-way unbroken conversation is about the least efficient way to communicate information from one person to another known to man, says Dr Levin. "But if you interrupt every six to 10 minutes and ask the students to do a quiz or solve a little problem - that increases attentiveness and it increases their retention. There have been some tests to show that in order to master the content of a 50-minute lecture, breaking it up eight times doubles the retention. The grades are twice as good in a test administered immediately after the lecture."

He adds : "We base all of our courses around that and it is increasingly percolating down to the campuses as teachers are learning this and are starting to break up their courses in this way. So I think there will be lots of pedagogical learning that will come back to the schools."

There's one other thing, "and this is something I really love about this new approach", says Dr Levin.

"Let's say you have been teaching the same microeconomics course for 10 years. You often realise that students have a really hard time getting a particular concept. So you might tinker with it the next year and do it differently. Your metric is how they do in an exam.

"You have a small sample and you are not quite sure. And you try that again the next year. And then in two years you see that this didn't work either and so you try something else. It could take you five years to repair a defect to the course."

In Coursera, continues Dr Levin, the instructors get daily dashboards so they know how students are doing in every quiz question.

It also shows which students are not continuing from, say, lecture segment three to lecture segment four and which students are starting lecture segment four and not finishing it. "So you can diagnose where the weak spots are in your course. You can go in and fix them, change the exam questions or shoot a new six-minute segment and you could watch the results. So over a period of weeks, and not years, you can improve your course. And, by the way, you can take the new approved course back to your classroom," he adds.

"Technology really is improving teaching. And at many universities, if you talk to some of their leaders, you will find this to be so. Go talk to folks in NTU - they really believe that the experience of making MOOC is actually having a really positive impact on the quality of teaching and has got professors talking much more about teaching than they used to. They used to be talking mostly about research much more than teaching. The presence of MOOC has begun to change that."

Coursera was founded by two Stanford computer science faculty members, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who were co-CEOs till Dr Levin joined in April 2014. Ms Koller, who is still with the company, runs the university partnership activities and looks after the content and quality teams. Mr Ng has moved back to his field of artificial intelligence and machine learning and is now the chief scientist at Chinese search giant Baidu. He remains on the Coursera board.

The company, which has a headcount of about 200 globally, has to date raised a total of about US$145 million from top-tier venture capital (VC) funds including KPCB and NEA, education-focused technology VCs such as GSV Asset Management, Learn Capital and IFC, as well as EDBI, the investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

Coursera may be at the vanguard of a new generation of online learning portals but the idea itself is by no means new. Dr Levin himself tried to build a similar system in 2000. He brought together his three alma maters, Yale, Stanford and Oxford, for an online education system. "We worked at it for three years and we developed some pretty good courses but we failed economically at sustaining it. There were a few parallel efforts like that between Columbia and Cornell Universities; they had another operation called Fathom."

They all hit the rocks due to bandwidth problems. "The videos students received were jerky and distracting and to compound it we also didn't have the right marketing strategy," says Dr Levin, adding: "We (Dr Levin's effort) were pitching it to our alumni and that was a way too small audience. So there was kind of aesthetic success but (it was a) commercial flop primarily because of bandwidth and partly because of bad business strategy."

Efforts continued and in 2004 MIT started with its open course ware, putting all the course material, exams and problem sets on the Internet. "Some of the courses had video lectures as well but they were what was called classroom capture. That is, they put a camera at the back of a class and captured the lecture. Yale followed up with that and did 45 pretty high production versions for classroom capture.

"(However) People watched that as entertainment - it really doesn't work well because the speaker is talking to a different audience as it seems like you are watching a film of somebody in the classroom. And it doesn't come across."

The secret of Coursera (and some of its competitors) is that they got the idea that the instructor should be looking straight at the camera - which comes across as "much more intimate" and "it feels like the instructor is talking to you", says Dr Levin. "It's made for the Internet. The quality has gotten better - technology and the learning from previous experiences have made it a much better educational experience than it used to be."

Advances in connectivity have also helped. There are now way more people with high speed Internet access and that's a huge differentiator today.

How does Coursera make money since entry to the courses is free for everyone? Dr Levin says the business model has been evolving. "We started with everything for free. In early 2014, we introduced the idea of paying for certification. So you take a Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) course, you get a piece of paper that certifies that you completed the course taken, via Coursera, from the university.

"We charge very reasonable prices, as low as US$29 in some developing countries for the course. On the other end of the scale, the Wharton course certifications cost US$95. And some of the project-based courses cost a couple of hundred dollars," says Dr Levin. "I think what we will see over time is more premium offerings which offer higher quality services that will command larger prices. But I think we are still committed to make available some educational experiences to learners. Even for the certification we do grant financial aid to learners who can't pay the US$29 fee provided they provide some proof which says they can't afford it."

Coursera splits its revenues from courses 50:50 with the participating university which, in turn, split its revenue with the faculty and take care of the overhead costs. "Universities are partners. They bear the cost of creating the courses and we bear the cost of maintaining the platform, of innovating and pedagogy, providing technical support to the learners and support for the course creators. Sharing best practices to help the universities to do a better job. It's a fair arrangement and revenues are growing. We have an increasingly healthy position. I believe the company will become quite profitable as we do great things."

Dr Levin notes that the top university brands are one of Coursera's most important assets. "Our technology and our platform we think is good as it gets in the business. However, it's getting even better every month and has a long way to go."

Dr Levin points out that Coursera's 15 million users is just the tip of the iceberg. "The potential would be in the hundreds of millions. There are 450 million people in the world who have university degrees and so we have 3 per cent of that population and you'd think we could easily unlock quite a bit more."

Coursera is in almost every country in the world, with the most rapid growth taking place in emerging economies. Dr Levin notes that Singapore is a unique case; it has by far the highest per capita utilisation of these courses among all countries. "It's such an education-focused society that it is tops in per capita utilisation."

Dealing with such large numbers, Coursera automates much of the grading process. Multiple choice tests are automatically graded and offer instant feedback. Simple mathematical expressions and short-answer prose questions are machine graded.

"All of this artificial intelligence stuff is pretty amazing. But by far the most grading is done by machines. When it comes to longer written pieces or longer computer programmes or more complicated math exercises like proving a theorem, we crowdsource it." Assignments that call for a 500-word essay, for instance, see students engage in peer grading. "So students are very satisfied with the peer grading. It's a learning experience from not only the feedback that they get but also from the feedback they give."

Dr Levin, who is 69, loves to take up challenges and do new things. He grew up in San Francisco and majored in history at Stanford University. He then went to Oxford where he wrote a philosophical political analysis of some of Max Weber's writings on social history for his Bachelor of Letters in Politics degree. After that, he went to Yale and did his PhD in economics. He's now writing a new chapter in his life as head of a promising Internet startup which is trying to revolutionise the method of acquiring knowledge, in much the same way Facebook transformed social sharing and Google reshaped search.


Chief Executive Officer, Coursera

1947: Born in San Francisco, California

1968: BA, History, Stanford University

1971: B Litt, Politics, Oxford University

1974: PhD, Economics, Yale University

1974-1979: Asst Prof of Economics, Yale

1979-1982: Assoc Prof of Economics, Yale

1982-2014: Professor of Economics, Yale

1993-2013: President of Yale

Since 2014: CEO and board member, Coursera

Since 2011: Co-founder and Governing Board member, Yale-NUS College

Other appointments

2000-2004: Co-chair, National Academy of Sciences
Study on Patents in a Knowledge-Based Economy

2004-2005: Member, Presidential Commission on Intelligence Concerning Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq

2006-2013: Founder and Chair, Global University Leaders Forum, World Economic Forum

2009-2014: President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology