Moocs are free – but for how much longer?

Monetising career development courses could be the next step for the university, says Stanford professor

August 21, 2014

Source: Alamy

Hard sums: a Stanford professor said no university could keep funding free courses

Few institutions are as closely associated with the massive open online course movement as Stanford University. But could monetising Moocs, particularly in professional development courses, be the next step for the California-based institution?

Two of the best-known US Mooc platforms, Coursera and Udacity, were formed by Stanford professors, and the university’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley places it in close proximity to many of the world’s leading tech companies.

John Mitchell is vice-provost for online learning and overseer of Stanford’s Mooc programme, which has delivered more than 240 online and blended campus courses to about 2 million people since 2011 – more than 50 of them for free.

“Moocs have started out as a free opportunity – and free is a great way to get people interested,” he said. “But traditionally, students in the US pay tuition to go to college or university and I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask people to pay a little bit for education activities that help them to move forward in their careers.” Professor Mitchell, who is an instructor on a computer security Mooc offered by Stanford on the Coursera platform, said that professional development courses offered universities the best opportunity to grow the income they generate from online courses.

“I think [Stanford] will have low cost, high volume, but non-free courses online that will help make our online programmes sustainable,” he said, adding that no college or university was able to continue funding free courses without finding a way to cover the costs.

This, Professor Mitchell continued, was despite the fact that free online courses helped to make the expertise of his university more visible to the general public – something that was, he said, in itself valuable to the institution. “If someone has an idea that’s useful to the world, spreading that idea is part of our mission,” he said.

“From a business point of view, I think many of the projects in that area will be supported over time in the same way that our research projects are supported: through external research grants, gifts from foundations, and so on.”

Until then, he said, universities would need to explore ways of charging for large online courses, even though doing so reduces the “openness” of any so-called Mooc. “One of the issues we have with Moocs is that it can be very difficult to set up successful group projects when people keep leaving the course,” he said, referring to the fact that completion rates for free online courses are typically very low.

“Maybe if there’s payment or an application process or courses targeted at a particular community we will have less attrition and more cohesion in the group.”

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Reader's comments (3)

I think the arguments are sound, but would personally regret if Universities would opt for less openness with respect to the distribution of knowledge. There seem to be many ways to generate income from online courses, but knowledge itself (i.e. the course materials) should remain free. Indeed, I find it hard to foresee a future where that is not the case - even if some institutions opt to charge for course materials, there will be other, free alternatives of comparable quality. With respect to completion rates, I think that it is by itself a marginally useful measure of the success of a course. This is especially true for courses that have a set start and end date, where plenty of people register for the course just in case, and when the course starts they realize they don't currently have the time. The move to on-demand courses (always on) will reduce that problem - people who sign up want to start at this very instance, signaling a stronger type of commitment. But even then, many learners do actually learn quite a bit even if they drop out in the middle of the course. The key question really is why people drop out of an online course. If that is because they feel they've satisfied their curiosity and have learned enough, I would file that under success for everyone. In my view, the big challenge of MOOCs is the high dropout rate of people who actually want to learn and want to finish the course, but get stuck midway and find it hard to get help. The current form of "community" is a text-based forum, which is essentially a technology from the early dark days of the internet. Platforms where students can get personalized, on-demand help via video chat or other forms can help solve this problem (and for those who are interested, I may point them to which I've built based on these considerations). A final point I would like to make is that I think that most previous MOOCs have barely scratched the surface of what is possible with online education. In many cases, MOOCs were / are simply powerpoint lectures that are recorded with some audio overlay. Boring. I was fortunate to lead a team at Penn State that developed a MOOC called "Epidemics" on Coursera that engaged with learners in many other, different ways - mobile phones games, interactive simulations, Ask-Us-Anything videos, etc. etc. Even then I felt we were just scratching the surface of what's possible, but according to some surveys (such as CourseTalk) the course is still rated the Nr. 1 scientific MOOC by learner vote, and the completion rate ended up being twice as high as the average.
John Hennesey, Stanford's President, signaled this shift in his earlier statement that there are two words wrong with MOOCs - massive and open. Actually, he is mistaken - the wrong word is 'course.' Professional development learners do not want courses, they want learning experiences. Just as the NYT thinks its brand can attract paying customers for its news, Stanford thinks its brand can attract paying customers for its learning experiences packaged as courses. The simple fact that few professional development learners complete MOO courses suggests otherwise. And the recent research at PENN about the cost/benefit analyses of MOOCs vs other forms of university reputation marketing suggests that free MOOCs are here for the long term. As a former Stanford professor, I am well aware of the hubris that dominates the upper levels of campus leadership. As one wit put it, no one ever called Harvard the Stanford of the East! Stanford may be able to marketize some professional development activities, but it's chances of driving free MOOCs from the universe of online learning are close to zero.
buiding execellence in students

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