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Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, announced today that Richard Levin will be coming on board as CEO. Levin was president of Yale University for 20 years before stepping down in 2013.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

“Technology,” Levin said in the press release, “now gives us the means to extend the reach of high quality education around the world and to provide millions of people with access to learning and opportunities for advancement. Coursera is at the front of this effort, with a stellar team, a remarkable growth trajectory, and a purpose that is an unmitigated public good.”

Levin first made contact with the company a few months ago as an advisor to Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company currently partners with 108 educational institutions in 19 countries. They offer 600 free courses to 7 million users from every country in the world.

Despite this success, Coursera, along with all other MOOC platforms, faces major existential issues. Levin is well suited to tackle them. “Levin’s a major fundraiser, so this could see Coursera win far larger amounts of VC and other support,” Bryan Alexander, the senior fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and a futurist specializing in learning and technology, commented on the announcement. “He’s also a consulting economist, so he’s probably going to try and solve the xMOOC economic sustainability problem.” (Alexander uses “xMOOC” to refer to the courses created by the big MOOC platforms, as opposed to cMOOCs organized independently around the web).

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

Richard Levin
Infographic shows Coursera’s growth as of October 2013.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a “Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track.

But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

Richard Levin
Rick Levin

The second, and related, big looming question has to do with Coursera’s relationship to the educational establishment. Its university partners, which include some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, have shouldered most of the cost and effort of content creation, which can be as much as $50,000 per course. Supervising a MOOC with tens of thousands of students can be a lot of work for professors and TAs.

Their return on this investment is still unclear. Is it primarily a way of attracting new students (an example of the “freemium” model applied to universities)? Or piloting new ways to teach? There are questions about intellectual property–does a professor who leaves one university get to take her MOOCs with her? Some universities have repurposed Coursera content in for-credit offerings. Does the Coursera signature track compete with their own continuing education courses?

Attracting new partners was easy when MOOCs were the flavor of the month, but going forward Coursera will need to provide a solid value proposition to its universities and convince them that their missions are aligned. It is here that Levin can really shine. He’s not the first university president to join an edtech startup–Bob Kerrey, who went from the New School to Minerva, is another example. But, as Alexander says, “It’s a serious commitment from this guy, who has a global reputation.”

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