The big news Monday was that Coursera, MOOC provider extraordinaire, had a bit of a re-shuffle at the top. Founders Daphne Koller and Andre Ng, and erstwhile President Laila Ibrahim, were joined by former Yale President Rick Levin, who is now the company’s CEO. This, needless to say, got everyone quite excited. A Big Name Has Joined Coursera! It must mean… well, what does it mean, exactly?
Coursera is a company which – from a growth point-of-view – has two huge positives and two huge negatives. The positives are an attractive portal that makes it easy to find and register in classes, and a set of partnership deals with many of the world’s top universities. The latter is particularly important because quality in online education is often seen as pretty sketchy, and so having a ton of brand name schools as content providers is all to the good.
The first negative is Coursera’s partner universities don’t want to devalue their own brands by making their degrees, or even credits, widely available over the internet. They don’t mind giving away content – MIT has had its entire curriculum up on the web for about a decade now – but they aren’t going to give away certification. This leads to the second problem: it’s not clear how willing people are to pay for MOOCs without that kind of credit/certification.
Coursera’s whole business plan to date rests on testing the limits of that second negative. Their bet is that lots of people are willing to pay $40 a pop for “certificates of completion” for individual courses. But it’s not clear how much money Coursera’s making from this. In the first 9 months after certifications were issued, they earned a million dollars from them. At about the same time, they completed a second round of venture capital funding, which in total has netted them about $65 million. Since then, they’ve been very quiet about how much they are bringing in, and ed-tech journalists for some reason don’t ask tough questions about this. I tend to view this as likely indicative of bad news for the company – Silicon Valley start-ups usually aren’t shy when it comes to talking about big revenue milestones.
And this is what makes this Levin deal so puzzling. At this stage of the game, Coursera needs to be demonstrating it can actually earn its own income. Why bring in a University President rather than someone with a background in business and technology (significantly, EdX also announced a new President on Monday: Wendy Cebula of Vistaprint )? What does Levin bring Coursera other than closer relations with a group of partners who aren’t going to give you what you want in terms of granting credit anyway?
And what’s the logic behind the rest of the moves? Why demote the previous President – Ibrahim, who was hand-picked by Coursera investor Kleiner Perkins – to Chief Business Officer, when she was the only one in the place who has actual business experience? Why give Andrew Ng a total grab-bag of titles and responsibilities (he’s now Board Chair, “Chief Evangelist”, and “in charge of pedagogy”, which could easily challenge for the biggest governance nightmare trifecta in history)?