Disruption in Education, with Rick Levin, CEO, Coursera

Companies like Coursera are changing education dramatically. From higher education to vocational and skills training, online courses offer high quality instruction at lower cost than ever before. On this episode, we talk with an online education pioneer to learn about the impact of technology on modern education.

Mar 24, 2017

Companies like Coursera are changing education dramatically. From higher education to vocational and skills training, online courses offer high quality instruction at lower cost than ever before. On this episode, we talk with an online education pioneer to learn about the impact of technology on modern education.

Rick Levin is the Chief Executive Officer of Coursera. In 2013, he completed a twenty-year term as President of Yale University, during which time he played an integral role in growing the University’s programs, resources and reputation internationally. He was named to the Yale faculty in 1974 and spent the next two decades teaching, conducting research, serving on committees and working in administration at the university. Rick served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology. He is a director of American Express and C3 Energy. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Rick received his Bachelor's degree in History from Stanford University and studied Politics and Philosophy at Oxford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Letters degree. In 1974, Rick received his Ph.D. from Yale University and holds Honorary Degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Peking Universities. 


Michael Krigsman: Welcome to Episode #224 of CxOTalk. I’m Michael Krigsman, and I am an industry analyst and the host of CxOTalk. We have such an interesting show today. We are going to be talking about changes in higher education, and in corporate learning, and our guest is Rick Levin, who is the CEO of Coursera. And, Rick was the president of Yale. He was the longest-standing president of Yale University. Then, he retired and began this, can we say, a second career, Rick? Welcome to …

Rick Levin: Absolutely!

Michael Krigsman: ...CxOTalk!

Rick Levin: Yeah. It was a complete change.

Michael Krigsman: So, you were retired from Yale, and you’re at home, and doing the things you do, and you decided to become CEO of Coursera. How did that happen?

Rick Levin: Uh, well, I was actually on a sabbatical away from New Haven. My wife and I came out to Stanford to take some time off after twenty years of service as President, and a couple of things: One is I got approached by someone who was a senior advisor at Kleiner Perkins, one of the investors in Coursera, and he said, "You know, you've got extra time, Rick. You've got to come over and help us with Coursera!" And I was a big fan of Coursera. Yale was a partner, and we did online learning experiments at Yale in the past. So, I said, "Sure," and I got into discussions with Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng the co-founders about serving as a kind of consultant for them right after the first of the year in 2014. But, no sooner had I done that that John Doerr, the famous leader of Kleiner Perkins was all over me to say, "No, no. What you really should do is not be Senior Advisor but come be the CEO and help build the company." It was easily tempting, because it's such an amazing company with such an important social mission! We're really doing great work.

Michael Krigsman: So, tell us about Coursera. It’s an amazing company with a great social mission, so tell us what is Coursera, and underlying the activities of the company, what is that mission?

Rick Levin: Okay. Well, the mission is easy. The mission is to, you know, transform the lives of people by giving them access to the world's best education. So, we are a platform that offers courses from a hundred and fifty of the world's best universities. We distribute it worldwide. We have [been] using advanced technology to enhance the learning experience, and we have reached, since its inception in 2012, have reached over twenty-five million learners worldwide. Three-quarters of them outside the United States. And, you know, we offer courses across the whole spectrum of human knowledge, but what we found in terms of shaping a business model was people are happy to watch the videos for free in all of these courses, but it's only in sort of career-relevant fields that they're willing to pay for credentials. So, the model is, the courses are there, anybody can watch the videos, but if you want to make it tested and you want to get a sort of certificate, that you completed the course, you pay a very modest price.

You know, we’re on subscriptions for some of them now, forty-nine dollars per months. Others are priced at seventy-nine dollars a course, it’s very reasonable. And, this is drawing people from all over. So, that was the basic start, and we’ve since branched out to do some other things, but the core business is built on free, massive, open online courses that are open to anyone and then people who want to pay for certification are starting to use these credentials as sexy badges in the workplace.

Michael Krigsman: You partner with educational institutions, so well-known professors are putting their courses online with Coursera.

Rick Levin: That’s right. We have a hundred and fifty university partners, including some of the top universities in the United States such as Yale and Stanford, and University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan, and many, many others; and then top universities all around the world: University of London, and the five or six of the Grande Écoles in France, and top universities throughout Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and so-forth. So, we have great content, and because we partner with the universities rather than go try to hire freelance professors, we essentially get quality assurance, because universities don’t want to put second-rate teaching up for global learners to sort of experience, so they really give us their best faculty, the courses have extremely high ratings from their learners. The average course is a 4.6 on a five-point scale. So, we’re really proud of the product. It’s really great. It’s really great content.

Michael Krigsman: Rick, what is the incentive for the universities and for the professors to partner with you, because if we think about it from an economic standpoint, you’re charging under a hundred dollars for a course.

Rick Levin: Yeah. Well, the incentive was we split the revenue with our partners, and the number, the scale is such that the revenue becomes meaningful. I mean, we're growing quite rapidly, we've doubled revenue year-on-year the last couple of years, and it's beginning to be the case that some of our university partners are, at this point, making meaningful revenue. And we think there's a huge growth ahead of us.

Michael Krigsman: So, this is about scale; that’s one very important aspect of this.

Rick Levin: That’s super important. I think, you know, obviously, at those low prices, it wouldn’t be meaningful if we were talking about a hundred students in a class. So the scale is super important. And, I should say that universities’ incentives are not strictly financial, and neither are ours. That is, if you’re a professor at a great university, you know, [you’re] more or less there with the dual mission of advancing knowledge through your research and disseminating it through your teaching. But, you know, if you think about it, historically, universities are, in a way, squandering these talented people and the fruits of their knowledge by wasting it on only fifteen people in a seminar, when they could be teaching fifteen thousand online. So, we see it as a way of actually helping universities to expand their mission beyond their own campus boundaries to educate great numbers of people, which is completely consistent with what they were set up to do, which is to disseminate knowledge.

Michael Krigsman: Is there a disruptive aspect to this in the way that Amazon has changed retailing, or Uber has changed the transportation business. So, is there a disruptive dimension to this as well?

Rick Levin: Well, there are disruptive dimensions, and let me try to characterize it. But first of all, the difference between us and Uber is, of course, we're hiring the existing taxi drivers to teach the courses, not a new labor force. So, we're using universities and working with universities to reach learners. So, they're our partners, not our competitors. So, we're not, in that sense, not really disrupting higher education. At least not now.

Now, the disruptive impact we’re having actually is on the labor market because these credentials are now being taken seriously by employers as certifications that people have competencies. You know, if you look at LinkedIn, you’ll see tons of people who post their Coursera certificates in their LinkedIn profile, and that is now becoming a signal to employers that it will continue to grow as more employers start to hire to these credentials. And, we’re seeing it. We’re seeing a number of big [companies] in Silicon Valley; employers saying, “We’re not going to look only at where the person went to university, but also what further education they’ve availed themselves of in their working careers.” So, in that sense, we are creating a new currency in the labor market and it’s highly valuable.

Michael Krigsman: So, this type of disruption in the labor market must have ultimately upstream effects in terms of the type of activities, experiences, courses, that traditional universities offer, right? So, there's this unbundling. Clay Shirky talks about the unbundling of the experience.

Rick Levin: Yup. Absolutely. I mean, in our first couple years, we just took whatever content the universities wanted to provide us. So, we build a broad catalog of courses across the spectrum of liberal arts and sciences, and business, and technology, and so forth. What we discovered is that the propensity to pay for content was really concentrated in business courses, in computer science-related courses, and data science, which is a big emerging field in which there's a tremendous labor shortage. And so, we saw that, and then we started actually soliciting content in these areas from our university partners. So now, it's a mix. A good fraction of the new content we introduce is actually stuff that we went to the universities and put out an RFP and asked them to supply to us because we knew there was a market demand for it.

Michael Krigsman: One of the interesting aspects of this is how … What were the conditions that needed to be in place for Coursera to be founded, right? There needed to be technology, economic conditions, so what enabled Coursera to come alive?

Rick Levin: It's a great question, and it really does have a lot to do with technology development. Back at Yale in the year 2000, I helped to form a joint venture between Stanford, Yale, and Oxford, not, by coincidence, my three alma maters, and we pulled up to create online courses. It was the first wave of the internet revolution, and the day was just too early. The video streaming was really jerky and not effective, and it just didn't have enough bandwidth, and most devices didn't have enough bandwidth. You know, we didn't have mobile phones that played the courses in those days. So, technology wasn't really there to make it hugely scalable and effective.

Then, there was a second wave in the middle of the first decade in the century when MIT, and Berkeley, and Yale, and a number of other schools just started putting lecture courses online by filming what happened in the actual classroom. And that got a lot of viewers, but that open educational resource movement got a lot of audiences. But, it wasn't really a very edifying educational experience because it didn't have the interactivity. And so, fast forward to 2012, and really you have sort of a simultaneous discovery around Coursera, at MIT, at Harvard, where they founded edX at about the same time as Coursera, and at Britain where the Open University founded FutureLearn just a little while thereafter.

All of these realizing: now the bandwidth is there, now the capabilities are there, now we can actually have interactivity real-time, we can propagate - you know, [we] have the server capacity to host all this, I would say, huge amount of data, you know; 16-20 hours of video content and all kinds of interactive quizzes and stuff. These are actually pretty substantial requirements from a storage and computational point of view. But, you know, by 2012, it was all there. And, it’s not surprising that sort of several of these companies sprung up right at the same time.

Michael Krigsman: How do you differentiate … When you look at the market for this type of learning; and what do you call this type of learning? I mean, we all know the term MOOCs, but what do you call it? And, when you look at the market, how are the different companies differentiated and what’s unique about Coursera?

Rick Levin: Okay. Well, there are a bunch of questions; let me try to disentangle them. First of all, we call this learning, not the type of learning - that is to say, we think it's for many, many types of subjects. Online learning is equivalent to, or even superior to, in-classroom learning. So, let me just unpack that for a minute: [...] We don't yet have the capacity online to do exactly what's done in like a live seminar with 12 or 15 people, which is intense back-and-forth with a live professor asking questions, using Socratic methods … and argument, take feedback and criticism from their peers, and so forth. But, that's an amazingly powerful way of teaching and develops a kind of capacity for critical thinking and argumentation, and you know, rational discourse that I think the online technology is yet to deliver on.

On the other hand, if you talk about mastering content, if you want to learn to code in Python, or if you want to master some of the new techniques of machine learning that are fueling the data analytics operations in so many companies and governments around the world: content mastery we do extremely well, compared to live teaching. I mean, how many people … Have you ever sat in a math course and been infused in the first five minutes, and therefore, we're at sea for the remaining forty-five minutes in a lecture? I've certainly had that experience. And, you don't have to have that experience online because we have six-minute segments, you take a quiz at the end; if you're stuck and you don't get it, go back and watch it over. You might even get guided as we are developing some of the pedagogy of, "If you're really having trouble with this, why don't you try so-and-so's course which is a little easier and will help get you prepared for this course?"

So, there's the rewind button, there are the frequent quizzes, and actually, there's also the opportunity to adjust the speed of the lecturer's voice to anywhere between 50% and 2x the normal rate of speech. And believe me, that's actually pretty cool, too because when you really get something, it's easy for you. Speed it up! And when it's hard, slow it down.

So it’s a lot of ways in which the learning is better, and there have been a lot of studies that have shown that for content mastery, online learning is equivalent, or even better than classroom learning, and actually the best of both worlds is when you blend them; it’s when you watch videos offline, take quizzes, and then come into class and have a discussion. That tends to really … that’s really the optimal experience.

So, that was the first part of your question, “What about learning?” And then you asked, “What are the competitors,” which, edX I mentioned. They’re very similar to Coursera in that they work with university partners, they have, just as we have, they have top-notch institutions. They have headline institutions of Harvard and MIT that were the co-founders. And, you know, actually, the main thing that differentiates us from them is our audience is about two and a half times bigger. We have about 25 million registered learners; they have about ten. We have a broader course catalog. We have about two thousand courses; they have about a thousand. But, it’s very … I mean, it’s great stuff. They have great material just like we do. They are also working with top universities.

Michael Krigsman: We have some interesting questions from Twitter, and I’m just going to take them in order. So, Terry Griffith asks: When you were talking earlier [...] about gaining quality by partnering with universities; high-quality courses, material; she makes the comment that she’s looking for employers to also play a larger role. And she’s an academic. And I know that you are working with employers, and so what about the role of employers in education and learning?

Rick Levin: Okay. So, there are two dimensions to that, that are worth talking about. One is industry-provided content to supplement our university-provided content. So, companies are actually making courses. And, we started to work with a number of companies to do courses that effectively use proprietary technologies. So, the material is essentially not competitive with what our universities do. So, for example, you can now take courses on Coursera offered by Google, to become a Google Cloud developer; or courses from IBM that introduce you to the Watson Internet of Things technologies. We also have some Intel courses coming out of the platform, and PWC is doing some work on the visual presentation of data. How do you give a great Powerpoint talk? Very practical. So, we are complementing university teaching with a more practical, applied courses from universities. I think that will grow from companies … That will grow.

A more exciting development to me is, you know, about a year and fifteen months ago or so, we looked at our data, and we realized, "You know, we've got 50 thousand course registrations from people with an Amazon.com email address, and 45 thousand from IBM, and 30 thousand from Cisco," and we realized people are using these courses in the workplace and connecting with their work. And so, we started early last year going to companies, testing the idea, "How about buying packages of these courses to help solve your problems in training your labor force?" And I have to say this has hit just an enormous resonant chord with Chief Learning Officers in major companies. They see that what we can do is fill a gap that they just can't do. I mean, they do live instruction on lots of things like company policies and compliance, and so forth like that. They use purchased videos for some of the same work, but they're like short-form videos. And, many companies use a Lynda.com or Skillsoft, which are large catalogs of short-form videos that teach you a single piece of skill, how do pivot an Excel spreadsheet or something like that.

In our courses, which are essentially four weeks long, 12 to 16 hours of video content, they saw an opportunity to really start to upgrade the skills of their workers, and we've now got an enterprise business going where we're selling these university courses into companies and they're really finding it very valuable. A couple of use-cases: One is very specific training. You know, like at Bank of New York Mellon, they're onboarding all their new software engineers with our specialization from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in full-stack web development so everybody has a common language. That's one example.

The other use-cases at the extreme are, "I just want to be a good employer, and I want my millennials to have access to learning and professional development, so I'll give them a wide range of options of courses to take and encourage them to do it." Then, both cases are at work.

Michael Krigsman: So, are you, in this case, replacing the in-house university [to one] that might be focused either on employees or very often companies - say technology companies - provid[ing] education and training for their customers on their particular products?

Rick Levin: Yeah. Well again, you know, is it disruption or absorption? Will the in-house universities now use our content in favor of some of their own locally-created content, or together with it? I think that is the most common use-case, that companies that have these internal universities, they’re going to continue to do things with their own live staff. I do think they will be substituting more and more online courses for live courses. It’s very economically effective for them, and you know, it makes a lot of sense.

Now, it’s also true that there’s still a case for high-level in-person training that many companies use. Business school professors come in and give customized content to top levels in an organization. We think that’s highly complementary with what we’re doing, because our business school partners can basically take the top of the pyramid and we take the base of the pyramid as target audiences, and I think that’s going to work well.

Michael Krigsman: I have the strong sense as you’re talking that your focus is on this partnership and finding ways where you can be complementary to whether it’s corporations or universities as opposed to trying to displace what they’re doing.

Rick Levin: Yeah. That’s very good. I agree with that. I think that is what we’re doing.

Michael Krigsman: We have some additional questions, and we have one from Shelly Lucas on Twitter. And, Shelley is asking, “How is artificial intelligence or machine learning affecting human learning?”

Rick Levin: So, you know, in many ways, actually. I mean, we’re using machine learning algorithms for a whole variety of purposes at Coursera. One, of course, is to drive the recommendation engine and matching learners to the right content for them. And, I think I’ve mentioned before we both do that through the standard kind of recommendations like Amazon would deliver. We see from what you’ve done on our website that you’re probably interested or you might be interested in the following courses. That’s a sort of Level One.

But Level Two is we’re really developing now a whole content-mapping of our courses in a very fine and granular way using machine learning to basically map out what videos contain what topics and what content, in a way that we can then direct learners more specifically to fulfill the needs and learning objectives that they have. So, guiding people to the right content is a big use-case for machine learning.

Giving people the right assessments and helping them get the right kind of feedback is another thing we’re using machine learning for; and some of that is not rolled out, but we’re doing some really exciting work actually on optimizing assessments for you so that you’re not discouraged and can continue to make progress in a course.

Michael Krigsman: So, there’s a technology component. Is the technology piece as important and as large as the educational content piece? How do you think about those two?

Rick Levin: Great question. They really obviously go together. And we can enhance the quality of the content with powerful technology. I do think that if you ask, "Why has Coursera resonated so much, and why have we grown so rapidly?", you'd have to say that the power of our university brands is super-important for that. I mean, so the content; the perception and the reality of the quality of the content probably come first at this point, but who knows where the technology will take us? I mean, it's changing every day and there could be some great breakthroughs.

Michael Krigsman: And, on this topic of technology, we have another interesting question from Arsalan Khan, and I’m glad that he asked this because I was curious about this as well. What kind of analytics and tracking do you do of the courses; of the videos; of the assessments? And he’s also wondering, do you share these results with your partners so that they can improve their content creation?

Rick Levin: Super great question, and it’s exactly what we’re doing. So, with respect to universities, yes. We give them tracking capability. They’re giving the grades to the learners. Now, granted a lot of the grades are the result of machine grading algorithms. They’re not that much human intervention. Most of them are open, large-scale classes. But, the professors have definitely used the data to improve their courses.

So, I’ll give you an example. Drawing from personal experience, I mean I taught microeconomics at Yale for many years, and I taught at the sort of level where you first start to use calculus, so it’s pretty hard for a lot of students to make the leap and actually do this subject. And sometimes I would ask a midterm exam question and almost everybody would flub it. And the question is … the question then becomes, “Is that because the question was poorly written, or is that because I wasn’t getting across and people really didn’t understand what was happening in the lectures?” If I want to change that in a residential setting of campus, I had to wait until next year to pick one of those two hypotheses and try it out and see what the results are. So, it might take me two or three years to iterate what is the best treatment of this subject, or set of treatments and exam questions.

On Coursera, you can do that within a matter of weeks! You can change your quiz questions, you can improve performance, and if that doesn't work, you can go in and re-record a six-minute video, or four six minute videos to cover the block of material and then test that, and see if that improves results. So, the feedback from the learner data is incredibly important, and it really does improve pedagogy.

Michael Krigsman: This has to be one of the most fascinating and incredible parts of the entire online course experience, because it means that you’re able to iterate in terms of that content, ensuring quality content, and ensuring that the content matches the needs of learners by getting direct feedback from learners as a group very quickly.

Rick Levin: Exactly. It’s great. And by the way, that tracking capability that we give to our university content creators, we’re also giving to our enterprise customers so that they can see how their employees are doing and make appropriate interventions where they need to.

Michael Krigsman: So, at Coursera, what does “innovation” actually mean? So when you talk about innovation at Coursera, what form does that take?

Rick Levin: [Laughter] I could step out of the studio right now and right on this floor at our offices in Mountain View, we’ve got 75 engineers who are super bright, competitive with the very best technology firms, just working on learning experience on assessments, on how to sequence material to make it better and in terms of some of the offerings we’re doing now, I’ll come to this later, but we are offering degree programs now on Coursera from our university partners. And that’s a big area of innovation right now because we’re moving into the area of live synchronous interaction as well as the asynchronous massive interactivity that we have now. So, there’s a lot of innovation going on.

Michael Krigsman: So, again, you must have the technologists working closely with content developers, or again, how does that work? How does that interplay to make content?

Rick Levin: Well content, the actual, you know, the professors and instructional designers and so forth are largely in the universities. We do give a lot of support. So obviously, we create the technology platform which gives them, the universities, the tools and gives them things they can do in their courses that maybe before technology they couldn't. I'll come back to that. But, we also have a set teaching and learning team who are pedagogy experts, and they are sort of helping to basically do the quality assurance on the courses. So, all of the courses that we have to go into our larger-volume products, larger revenue products, which are bundles of courses we call "specializations," so, like sequences. All of those courses are beta-tested before we release them. We have a population of two or three thousand learners who have agreed to be beta testers, and so we get a lot of feedback. So, we actually are helping to make sure that the concepts are clear and the courses are well-structured. So, we do all of that. We built technology and sort of human intervention on the teaching quality side.

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like one of the key themes is you having interaction and providing feedback both to your higher education partners, as well as your corporate learning partners…

Rick Levin: Right.

Michael Krigsman: … based on that data.

Rick Levin: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right.

You know, I should mention one other sort of use-case for our material that is growing also rapidly, which is… This gap that existed; what people call the “skills gap,” which I would define as, “There’s a lot of unemployed and underemployed people who are looking for jobs on the one hand; or on the other, there are high-skilled jobs that are going begging, and remain vacant because they can’t find enough qualified people. And, one way to solve that, of course, is to give better skills to the people who need them and who then could get the better-paying jobs and the high-quality jobs. A lot of those jobs are in computer fields, and also in data fields in this era of machine learning and big data, where we have a superb curriculum.

So, one of the things we’re doing now is we’re working with governments on workforce development programs. I mean, one small pilot in the state of Maine, for example, with unemployed and underemployed workers there, where they’re taking our technology-oriented courses in order to get entry-level jobs in that sector. And they’re even getting live facilitation of their learning in collaboration with the University of New England. And then, we’ve got larger-scale programs in a number of countries around the world, and a very large program about to launch in Pakistan, that will be tens of thousands of people needing training. And we have similar programs, smaller scale, in Egypt, Malaysia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Singapore. So, that’s a huge need. And, when you think about who the Trump voter is and what many of them need is they need a new opportunity. The people in our society who have not had … constant or declining real income for the last thirty years. A lot of those people could pick up new skills through online technology and help to get better jobs.

Michael Krigsman: Well, certainly, this issue of skills training in our global economy is so important. And so, please share your thoughts on the economic aspects of this, the social, cultural aspects of this, and what can be done? What are the policy implications here?

Rick Levin: Now, well I think these … You know, in our country, we don’t really have federally-administered training programs at any scale, but there are a lot of state workforce development programs that could be, I think, greatly enhanced by the use of online materials which are so scalable and so low-cost, relative to making everything be live instruction. So, I do see a big scope for that.

I also see scope for government policy at the federal level. We have, on the books, in the US tax code, a lifetime learning tax credit that allows you to, for vocational training in adulthood, after your eligibility for the higher education opportunity tax credit is used up, you can use the lifetime tax credit. However, because it's a tax credit, and it's not refundable, forty-five percent of US households at the bottom of the income distribution can't use it. It seems really weird. It's designed to upgrade people's skills. And then, if your income exceeds 65 thousand dollars, you also can't use it. So, we've got a tax provision that's actually hitting maybe 10-15% of the population, which seems a little nuts. And so, I think a very important reform in the upcoming tax reform would be to just make this a refundable credit and open it up to many more people. And, that would allow people on their own to get access to very high quality, online materials, as well as get to take a course in their community college live.

Singapore has a program just like this, where they have … You can get a $500 credit, and you can use it to take a live course at an educational institution or to take an online course that's certified and accredited by the government. We put over 600 of our courses through the accreditation process, and we're actually the largest beneficiary of that program in Singapore, offering more courses and having more people involved than any other provider.

Michael Krigsman: So, this kind of tax, rather than a tax credit, as you’re describing, what would you call it? A rebate, or …

Rick Levin: I’d say, no … From an economics [perspective], what if you got a tax credit that’s a refundable credit, which meant if you didn’t pay taxes, you got the money back? It’s similar to the earned income tax credit.

Michael Krigsman: And, this would obviously be beneficial to folks who are in need of skills training. We hear all about globalization. So, your work, then, with governments; do you touch on this, both in the United States and in foreign countries as you’re working with various governments? What is your relationship [with them] and how do you see those relationships?

Rick Levin: Umm, we have not been working at the policy level. I'm just suggesting this lifetime earning tax credit as an economist noting that this is something we should be fixing. But, the relationships we have; we have a team, a business development team that's out talking to governments to sort of elicit their interests in the use of our courses for workforce training. And, as I said, it's resonating. We've got about a half dozen countries in the developing world who are now engaged.

And, there’s a lot of great use-cases. We have a small program with a potential to scale, which is here in this country with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and the idea here is to give our courses to people in the last six months of their military service to help them prepare to transition into the civilian labor force. And so, we’re teaching both computer skills, and actually hotel and restaurant management to veterans involved in this program, or soon to become veterans. Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: So, the breadth of what you’re teaching now, and your plans for the future, are really quite broad; quite wide.

Rick Levin: Oh, yeah. I mean, look. The opportunity here for society, not just for us, but we’re the leading edge, but it is enormous opportunity to use technology to help people improve their lives and improve their economic opportunity. So, I do think that, you know, we’ll see a proliferation of these policies; of this kind of use over time to create a batch.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, which is, “What are the most popular courses that Coursera offers?”

Rick Levin: Good question! So, that’s interesting. If you do it by just enrollments, it’s a mix of career-related courses, and courses that are more based on just practical interest and curiosity. So, for the skills-development side, the most popular courses are first-course machine learning taught by Andrew Ng, one of our co-founders, which he’s updated some and is about to actually do some more new material. But, that’s hugely popular. It really is probably the best foundation you can get in this field of machine learning available anywhere. I mean, he’s a superstar teacher at Stanford, and it’s really a great course. So, that’s one of the top four or five.

Introduction to … It's called "Python for Everyone," a Python programming course taught by a very popular computer science professor, Dr. Chuck, at the University of Illinois… Michigan, I'm sorry, the University of Michigan … is extremely popular.

On the other side, a couple of courses that have had tremendous popularity. There's one called "Learning How to Learn" by a woman named Barbary Oakley offered through the University of California at San Diego. And, this is a neuroscience course that talks about how the brain works and yet, draws very practical lessons about how to study effectively. So, it's very cool. She has this metaphor about how active and passive ways to the brain work, and how you have to combine them. So, that leads to tips like never study for more than twenty-five minutes without taking a break. And there's a whole lot of scientific evidence to back this up. Very entertaining course.

Those three are probably the top three courses in terms of popularity.

Michael Krigsman: And we have another related question coming from Twitter. We have just about five minutes left. And this is from Pao-, hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly, Paola Guevara, and Paola asks, “What is most inspiring to you about online education?”

Rick Levin: Oh, that’s easy. Every meeting of our company, we have all-hands meetings typically once every other week. And, at the end of the meeting, someone in our company will get up and present the story of one of our learners, and they’ll often do it just be reading email exchange. Sometimes, they’ll connect it by Skype with those learners and create a video for the company to see. But, the stories are just amazing. I mean, people that have completely transformed their lives because of their access to this material. I mean, we had a story recently from a Syrian refugee in a camp in Turkey about how this has just opened up a whole new world to him. We’ve had a family of a dyslexic young man tell us about how this child couldn’t relate in a live classroom. He was terrified, and he couldn’t function. And all of a sudden, he’s just taken off and blossomed as a human being, and he’s completely like 25 of our courses, and it’s changed his life and the family’s life.

You know, people getting amazing economic opportunities, from stories as mundane as "I graduated from a British university as an English major, and of course there were no jobs for me. But, I got out, and I took Coursera courses on data science and now I got a great, high-paying job as a data analyst. So, that's a mundane one. The more radical one is "I'm a battered woman. I escaped a brutal marriage in Bangladesh and took work and business courses on Coursera in order to prepare myself to start a business; and now I have a successful bakery.

I mean, these are amazing stories. That’s what inspires me.

Michael Krigsman: Seems like you’re having a good time.

Rick Levin: Well, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to create a company that we expect will be a sustainable, viable, you know, profitable enterprise and at the same time, has an enormous social impact. It keeps all of us here really going.

Michael Krigsman: And, in our last couple of minutes, where do you see online education going?

Rick Levin: I think it’s going to be huge. And, I think what it does is it changes the paradigm - that education is no longer something you do K - 12 followed by four years of college; that it’s not a one-and-done operation; that education is a lifelong pursuit, and that in your twenties and thirties, and even forties, as you are still moving up the ladder career-wise, you’re taking courses all the time either in your workplace or on your own, on your mobile phone. By the way, we’ve been talking about that, but this is accessible. I mean, our mobile app is … You can do just anything you can do on the web, you can do on mobile.

So, I see that people are doing career-related activities in the early stages of their careers, and then folks that are well along like you, who will want to take an astrophysics course just for the heck of it because you're curious and would love to learn about what's going on. So, I think it serves people at every stage of life with every kind of need. And, to me, as a person who spent 43 years at Yale University as a student, teacher, and president, the idea that universities can now contribute to people and have a lifelong relationship with learners and not just a four-year relationship, I think it's immensely powerful. And, I think universities are going to eventually learn that they have a whole new, very important social function.

Michael Krigsman: With profound implications economically and for societies here and certainly, in other countries as well.

Rick Levin: Absolutely.

Michael Krigsman: Well, fantastic! You have been watching Episode #224 of CxOTalk. And, we have been speaking with Rick Levin, who is the CEO of Coursera, and previously, he was the longest tenured president of Yale University in its history. Rick Levin, thank you so much for being with us and taking time today!

Rick Levin: Thanks for having me! It was fun.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, come back next week. We have more shows, and check out CxOTalk.com/episodes, and subscribe on YouTube. Thanks so much. Have a great day, everybody. Bye-bye!

Published Date: Mar 24, 2017

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 424