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Coursera and Udacity’s CEOs Talk about Latest Developments

Coursera CEO Rick Levin and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun give talks, discussing their companies’ new developments.

Recently, both Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera, and Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, spoke in public forums and shared their views.

Rick Levin

Rick Levin spoke at the Higher Education Forum in New York on Sep. 30, and was interviewed by Matthew Bishop of The Economist. The interview is below.

Rick Levin interview at High Education Forum in New York

“The forces of creative destruction are stronger than any of our wills” 

In the interview, Rick is very conciliatory towards universities and emphasizes that Coursera considers universities their partners and rely on them. However, at one point, the interviewer asked if it would be possible if Coursera became a powerful channel (like cable television companies), relegating the content providers (universities) be less powerful. Rick did acknowledge that this was possible (and he didn’t seem displeased with the idea), but he doesn’t think it is too likely. He does trot out a quote that could have been in movie: “the forces of creative destruction are stronger than any of our wills”. A few other interesting facts he pointed out in his interview:

  • Of Coursera’s students, only 15% are college-age, some are younger, but a full 70% are older
  • Regarding completion rates, when students complete the first week, the completion rate for finishing is 45%
  • With the offering of on-demand courses, Coursera has seen an increase of 3-4x the typical enrollments for these–providing evidence that students are looking to take classes on their own schedule

Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun was on a panel with UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at the World Affairs Council. The hour-long discussion is here:

Nicholas B. Dirks & Sebastian Thrun: Online Education: Preparing the Labor Force

“The academic school year is based on agrarian times when during the summer students had to return home to work on their farms” 

This discussion took a little more form of a debate, with Sebastian essentially calling universities dinosaurs with their heads stuck in the sand. He mentions that the academic school year is based on agrarian times when during the summer students had to return home to work on their farms, and yet we still have this today. He says that the fundamental, radical question to ask is this: If we were to create higher education today, how would it look? It is obvious, he thinks, that it would look very different.

For his part, Chancellor Dirks defends universities and says that they play an important role in shaping people to be good citizens. He also says that Berkeley and other universities are open to using and leveraging new technology (Berkeley also participates in edX MOOCs), and are reaching more of the community through extension programs. But he wants to make sure we hang on to the benefits of having a campus-based education system, something that has been serving us very well–he pointed out, for example, that much of Silicon Valley’s innovation came from the Berkeley and Stanford campus environments (which Sebastian fully agreed with). Sebastian also offers some candid thoughts on Udacity’s San Jose State experiment.


Thus, we have two examples here of how these MOOC differ in their stance to universities. Coursera sees universities as partners providing content, and thus are very interested in keeping them happy. Udacity is trying to convince people that they don’t need to go through universities again to develop their job skills (they are targeting university graduates right now). Thus, they have a more negative view of universities, as places where people were not adequately trained to work in high-demand jobs. Both Coursera and Udacity are growing and trying new models and approaches…just what innovative organizations should be doing as they look for ways to add more value.

Image Src: Sebastian Thrun Rick Levin

Comments 1

  1. mgozaydin

    Coursera is wonderful in marketing .
    To me MOOCs are senseless. 1000 enroll then 20 gets certificates .
    It is nonsense. People are not after learning they are after their curiosity .
    Today’s problem is :
    1.- Colleges are expensive, parents cannot afford it.
    2.- Even though they are expensive they do not have quality . 25 million BA holders are underemployed out of 41,7 million total .
    We need first class universities education to everbody at a small fee.
    That is possible by edx consortium set up by MIT and Harvard if they provide degrees too. Yhen enrollment will be 100 but graduates with degrees 80 or more .from top universities .
    Convince EDX to provide degrees .


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