The former Yale president has signed up with MOOC master Coursera, becoming its CEO.
Mr. Levin, who has been an adviser to Coursera since January, has been experimenting with online education for years, beginning in 2000 in a partnership with Stanford and Oxford. In 2007, he started Open Yale Courses to make dozens of classes taught by Yale professors available without cost.
Levin is apparently particularly attractive because of his past work with Yale and China; Chinese constitute the second-biggest users, after the U.S., of Coursera’s online courses.
“The main thing we will work on is to establish this model so our partner universities feel that offering large-scale MOOCs is an important part of their mission that helps faculty expand their reach, and benefits the world,” Mr. Levin said.
Well, that’s sort of true and sort of isn’t. The main thing they’ll be working on really is finding a way to get millions of people in emerging markets to pay for these courses, which are generally free now, so that the company can create a revenue stream and go public, making Levin wealthier than he already is. He made quite a nice wage as Yale president—some $1.7 million in 2009-2010, according to the YDN.
Is this a bad thing? I guess you can’t really blame Levin for doing it. He’s still a pretty young guy and online education does have some idealism to it; there are worse ways to make a lot of money than by spreading knowledge around the world.
And, of course, MOOCs might one day be a viable competitor to places like, um, Yale, which are so astonishingly expensive that many people can’t imagine sending their children there. Whether or not Coursera proves to be a supplement to Yale or a threat to it is something of an open question.
And, since I pointed out a few months ago when Larry Summers joined the board of online “university” Minerva that he was actually joining a competitor to Harvard’s online edX, it’s only fair to point out that Coursera is presumably a competitor to Yale’s edX equivalent, Open Yale.
So that part is a bit awkward, then.
The question is really, What’s a former university president to do? Not many now want to go the way of Derek Bok, to write serious but little-read books on education policy. There already is a baseball commissioner, even if he is kind of a joke. Levin’s not about to be Fed chair. Sticking around campus is tough on your successor. And Yale’s former president Benno Schmidt, alas, has already pioneered the idea of going into for-profit education. (It hasn’t exactly elevated his stature.)
Why not cash in? Everyone else is doing it.