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University Ventures Letter
Volume IV, #10

The Great Online Course Debate:  Janet Napolitano, Rick Levin and Guy Smiley

In recent weeks we’ve seen contradictory pronouncements on the role of online courses in higher education from one of higher education’s longest-tenured leaders and one of its newest.  Rick Levin, President of Yale for 20 years and the new CEO of Coursera, the leading provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), has conducted a range of interviews in which he’s stated his belief that online courses will address the fundamental challenges facing higher education.  In contrast, former Arizona Governor and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the new President of the University of California System, has said she believes online courses are only “one tool for the toolbox” and not useful for students who need the most help.  Squaring these perspectives calls for some education.  And nothing educates like Sesame Street.

As a child, one of my favorite Sesame Street bits starred Jim Henson’s Guy Smiley (“America’s Favorite Game Show Host”) as the exuberant host of a “This is Your Life” parody called “Here is Your Life.”  But while the original toured celebrities through the key people and events in their lives, the point of Sesame Street’s “Here is Your Life” was to teach kids how things are made; so notable guests included a loaf of bread, a sneaker (right foot), a tooth, a painting of a bowl of fruit, a carton of eggs, a house (2102 Shady Lane), and an oak tree.

Guy & Oak

In the famous loaf of bread episode, the first visitor is Carol the Baker “all the way from the bakery down the street” who shows a baby picture of the “adorable little recipe.”  Then Carol makes way for Cora Cow and Farmer Frankie who provided the milk and flour.  The bread is overcome with gratitude:  “That’s right.  I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”

Here’s what happens next:

Guy Smiley:  “And so you were baked.  And then you sat on the baker’s shelf.  And you were happy with all those other loaves of bread.”
Loaf of Bread:  “Yes.”
Guy Smiley:  “But then… someone came and bought a loaf of bread next to you.  And that loaf of bread was your best friend.”
Loaf of Bread:  [crying] “Yes.  That’s sad but true.”
Guy Smiley:  “You haven’t seen that loaf for a long time.  But… we found her.  She’s now peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French toast and here they are all the way from Joe’s Diner in Tuscaloosa, Alabama:  Betty and Melissa Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches and Yvette and Danielle French Toast!!!”


The greatest feeling since sliced bread.

Notably, every episode of “Here is Your Life” concludes with Guy Smiley saying:  “And that’s not all.  We have a charm bracelet for you to remember this occasion.”  One of the great mysteries of my youth was how the loaf of bread – or the painting of the bowl of fruit for that matter – could wear a charm bracelet.

Now imagine an episode of “Here is Your Life” hosted by Janet Napolitano with a new guest:  an online course.  

Janet Napolitano:  “Online course, here is your life!”
Online course:  “I’m honored.”
Janet Napolitano:  “First, let’s bring on the faculty member who put her onground course online.”
[Faculty member enters]
Faculty member:  “You are the exact same course as the one I teach every year.  Except you are online.”
Online course:  “Correct.”
Janet Napolitano:  “Next, let’s bring on the UC instructional designer who helped her.”
[Instructional designer enters]
Instructional designer:  “I helped.”
Janet Napolitano:  “Online course, we are done here.”
Online course:  “Where is my charm bracelet?”

A few things to note:  One, Janet Napolitano is not as funny as Guy Smiley.  Second, this fairly reflects her thinking.  She seems to see online learning as a literal translation of onground courses to the new medium by university faculty and university employees who assist faculty.  As a result, online courses are inferior, expensive for the university, and not useful in reaching students who need the most help (i.e., students in remedial and lower-level courses).

Uncharmed, the Children’s Television Network brass decides to replace Janet Napolitano with Rick Levin.  He’s already taken one new job after staying in the same one for two decades.  Why not another?  

Rick Levin:  “Online course, here is your life!”
Online course:  “I’m honored, I think.”
Rick Levin:  “Our first guest is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, who showed how the online medium could really be used effectively for learning.”
[Sal Khan enters]
Sal Khan:  “Online course, you have the potential to reach millions of students who don’t have access to traditional colleges and universities.”
Rick Levin:  “Our next guest is the instructional designer.”
[Instructional designer enters]
Instructional designer:  “Online course, I didn’t create you by just taking an onground course and literally placing it online – lectures, discussions and all.  That would be like saying the purpose of movies it to film theater productions.  You are education in a new medium.  Films today don’t look like film versions of stage productions.”
Rick Levin:  “And our final guest is the faculty member.”
[Faculty member enters]
Faculty member:  “I worked with the platform developers to add features specific to my discipline.  And every month I look at data tracking every formative assessment, every click, and then work with the team to continuously improve you to maximize student outcomes.”
Online course:  “Well I…”
Rick Levin:  “Best of all, online course, because you can scale to reach thousands of students, you cost less than onground courses – sometimes much less.  And with these savings, we’ve bought you a charm bracelet for you to remember this occasion.”


As usual, Sesame Street is instructive.  Janet Napolitano’s very limited view of online education makes sense through the lens of the homegrown online courses that pervade the faculty-driven UC system, where – not unlike public television (but notably quite unlike the Department of Homeland Security) – partnering with private service providers to develop scalable, customer-facing, market-leading products has been a tough row to hoe.  In contrast, Levin’s perspective is informed by private sector student-centric technology companies able to recruit top talent and willing to invest in the development of online courses, leading him to an optimistic view that the new medium has the potential to solve the primary challenges of accessibility, affordability and efficacy facing global higher education without breaking universities’ budgets.

So give Rick Levin the “Here is Your Life” gig as well.  For despite my longstanding disagreement concerning the viability of the current form of Coursera’s massive and open offering, I’ve followed Levin’s career closely enough to realize that although he’d be a worthy successor to Guy Smiley, he’s nobody’s muppet.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector.  UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’.  By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.

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