The big MOOC news this week involved the leadership changes taking place at the two biggest MOOC providers: Coursera and edX.
As most readers probably already know, Coursera just announced that Richard Levin, former President of Yale, will be taking on the CEO role of the Silicon Valley based MOOC provider. This means new roles for the company’s founders as Daphne Koller takes on the title of President and Andrew Ng becomes Chairman of the Board (my favorite corporate title – especially since I first knew of it as the label for Frankie before I was old enough to grasp corporate hierarchy).
Meanwhile, on this coast, edX is bringing Wendy Cebula – former COO of Vistaprint – to lead the company as President with current President Anant Agarwal taking on the role of CEO.
Others have commented on the reasoning behind these particular choices, particularly the impact Levin will have on Coursera’s academic cred during a time when the organization is likely to be accelerating its business-model experimentation. This will be particularly important since the company’s investors – while patient and committed to the component of Coursera’s mission to bring free learning to the world – will be taking keener interest in how their $65 million investment will ultimately bring a return (above and beyond naches).
In the venture or private-equity game, “patience” is a matter of what type of investment fund has committed to your company. Most investment groups maintain funds that are looking for returns within specific timeframes (such as 5, 7 or 10 years). During early years, investors may actually encourage spending to accelerate growth, essentially sacrificing profitability for market share. But as a company reaches the end of an investment cycle, investors want to know which of the companies in their portfolio look like winners (which can lead to further investment, a sale of the company, or public offering) and which don’t (which can lead to a company having to find new investors or go out of business when the cash runs out).
Assuming Coursera’s investors are playing a long game, this is still a spend-and-grow stage for the company, which may explain why they have reached out to a seasoned academic leader to manage their next stage of transformation. For as initiatives to monetize content from partner universities accelerate, making headlines (positive and negative) while not necessarily bringing immediate return to the colleges and universities that create Coursera’s “product,” having an academic vs. a business or financial leader at the helm can assuage concerns that the company is pivoting too far in the direction of profits.
As a non-profit, edX is the subject of less suspicion of its stated mission to bring massive open learning to the world. But the company is still spending a lot of dough (most of it provided by the original investors Harvard and MIT) and searching for viable business models to sustain their programs if and when those institutions decide to start writing smaller checks to the organization as other institutional priorities take precedent.
The need for academic bona fides is somewhat more attenuated in the case of edX, given the major role universities (particularly Harvard and MIT) play in the organization beyond just providing content for the platform edX develops and supports. Which may explain why a private-sector hire with experience turning a seven-figure brick-and-mortar business (local printing) into a nine-figure online one makes sense.
As the executive deck gets shuffled at both organizations, it’s also worth noting that among their original leadership teams, Andrew Ng and Anant Agarwal represent not just academics turned executives, but also important components of each company’s product. Ng’s Machine Learning was first given as part of the Stanford open learning experiment that led to the creation of the first MOOC companies Udacity and Coursera (with that class still anchoring Coursera’s flagship computer science discipline). And one of the first courses that attracted six-figure enrollments for edX, establishing that new company as a contender, was Anant Agarwal’s Circuits and Electronics.
Above and beyond the shuffle stories themselves, it was interesting to read through the comments written in response to those articles, many of which seem to have been imported from pieces written in 2013 when the notion of MOOCs shaking the academy to its foundations to generate profits for rapacious VCs fueled much of the emotion behind the MOOC backlash. But now that it’s clear that MOOCs – if they survive – will do so by offering something other than a complete replacement for residential education for North American 18-22 year olds, we should probably judge the leadership of Coursera, edX and all other MOOC organizations by how much success they have figuring out what this “something other” consists of.