Levin named CEO of Coursera

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Less than a year after stepping down from the Yale presidency, Richard Levin has been named the next chief executive officer of the online education outfit Coursera.

Levin’s appointment to lead Coursera — an online platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) used by 108 schools including Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania — was announced Monday on the company’s blog. Noting Levin’s business acumen and enthusiasm for online education, Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng said on the website that Levin would help their company achieve its ultimate goal: “to change the world through education.” In recent years, Coursera has shot to the forefront of the online education trend, popularizing the idea of MOOCs, which allow for global online participation in courses through a video platform.

Levin told the News that the job offer rolled out of a conversation at a party in New York. Levin confessed his admiration of Coursera to one of its investors, who in turn connected him with the Coursera leadership. During his sabbatical in Palo Alto last semester, Levin signed on to be a part-time senior advisor to the company. But he said the idea that he should take on a bigger role began to “bubble up from the leadership team.”

“He’s one of the most well-respected university presidents in the past fifty years,” Koller told the News. “He carries an incredible amount of credibility in the academic world.”

Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford, said Levin’s appointment demonstrates the significance of MOOCs to higher education. She added that Levin will be able to leverage Coursera’s network of connections across academia, business and industry in service of Coursera’s mission.

University President Peter Salovey said Levin is a fitting leader for Coursera because he is knowledgeable about online education and “thinks broadly about the future of higher education.”

While president of Yale, Levin oversaw successive waves of online education projects, including AllLearn — a joint venture with Stanford and Oxford universities — as well as the Open Yale Courses initiative and, most recently, Yale’s partnership with Coursera itself. This semester, Yale began offering four pilot courses on the platform.

Akhil Amar, a law professor who is currently offering his American constitutional law lecture on Coursera, said he thinks Levin’s appointments signals a good relationship between Yale and the online education platform.

Koller said having Levin onboard can “only strengthen” Coursera’s already-strong relationship with Yale.

Among the strengths Levin brings to Coursera are the connections he made as Yale’s president — including those in China, where Coursera recently announced a deal with NetEase, a technology firm, to launch a Chinese-language portal called Coursera Zone.

“Certainly Rick’s connections in China are very valuable to any organization that’s trying to have an impact in China,” Koller said.

As Yale’s president, Levin famously worked to promote Yale’s relationship with China and extend the University’s brand to Asia. When Chinese president Hu Jintao came to the United States in 2006, he made a visit to Yale’s campus. More controversially, as part of its pivot to Asia, Yale entered into partnership with the National University of Singapore to build Yale-NUS, a liberal arts college in Singapore.

Levin told the News that China is a “huge potential market” for Coursera.

“I have a sense of how the Chinese educational system operates, I think that knowledge will be helpful,” Levin said. “There is a great interest in China in using more interactive forms of instruction.”

Levin’s appointment drew praise from two of the architects of Yale’s current online education initiatives.

Lucas Swineford, who runs Yale’s office of digital dissemination, called Levin’s appointment a “grand slam” for Coursera.

“To think how strong the Coursera technology and platform is today and how Rick with his energy and vision will get it in short order is exhilarating,” he said.

Music professor Craig Wright, who chairs Yale’s Committee on Online Education, said Levin is “passionately committed to the proposition that education can be extended globally for the good of all.”

Coursera has approximately seven million users.

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