Will MOOCs Cost Money?

Rachelle Peterson

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on September 30, 2014.

MOOCs snagged headlines upon their debut in 2011 primarily for two features: open, and massive. The cost-free, admissions-free courses defied administrative oversight and were expected to advance social justice endeavors to make education accessible to those least able to afford it. As thousands signed up for classes, course sizes swelled to tens, even hundreds times the sizes of their in-person lecture-hall counterparts on campus.

Both of these characteristics may change, according to John Mitchell, the head of Stanford’s MOOC platform, Stanford Online. Mitchell recently told the Times Higher Education that maintaining a zero-revenue model in the long term was infeasible for any college or university involved in MOOCs, and that they would need to explore pricing mechanisms. “MOOCs have started out as a free opportunity – and free is a great way to get people interested,” Mitchell commented. “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.” What will Stanford’s offerings look like instead, if not free? “I think [Stanford] will have low cost, high volume, but non-free courses online,” Mitchell projects, in order to “make our online programs sustainable.”

Mitchell’s forebodings signal a shift away from the early hopes of many MOOC proponents that the courses might become self-sustaining by acquiring advertisers or providing head-hunting services. These incidental revenue sources were not themselves necessarily lucrative on a per-person scale, but when multiplied by millions of students, they became theoretically feasible business structures. If Mitchell’s apprehensions are right, though, MOOCs will become either objects of philanthropy like other nonprofit public awareness and education campaigns, or else priced services like most of higher education’s current offerings.

In fact, Mitchell’s comments are line with a growing trend among MOOC producers to begin collecting revenue directly from students, rather than other patrons, by selling their educational products. Coursera, the MOOC platform launched as a private venture-funded start-up by two Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng initially offered free courses to anyone who signed up, but Coursera has begun increasingly promoting its “Signature Track,” which requires users to verify their identities, perform some coursework at a supervised testing location, and in exchange earn a certificate of achievement that verifies their achievement. Joining Signature Track costs about $30 to $90, depending on the course, and Coursera also makes financial aid available. Udacity, another for-profit MOOC initiative by Stanford computer scientist and Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, now prices all of its courses, typically for modest fees of $150 per course—well beneath most the costs of many traditional college courses. For now, the offerings of EdX MOOC consortium started by Harvard and MIT remain free, buoyed by substantial grants from both universities, but Mitchell’s fears of financial sustainability indicate a danger that may be growing for other platforms as well.

Stanford Online already charges for some courses (typically blended learning courses that operate partly online and partly in-person), but as of now, MOOCs offered there are still free. Mitchell suggests moving forward to develop a realistic business plan, which he projects will involve focusing on professional development courses—another growing trend in MOOC education. The other option Mitchell mentions is securing philanthropic support from foundations or else charging the MOOC development costs to research and development budgets, perhaps in a manner similar to MIT and Harvard’s funding of EdX.

Charging entrance fees necessarily reduces the “openness” of a MOOC, shrinking class sizes. MOOCs have been dogged by low completion rates in part because hordes of students either unsuited to the discipline or distracted by other commitments bail over the course of the semester. Mitchell acknowledged that “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,” and suggested that “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.”

Both of Mitchell’s suggestions make a great deal of economic sense in providing for the needs of colleges and universities that host MOOCs. Colleges exist to serve their students and their faculty members, not the broader educational needs of the general public. Pouring institutional money into public service is charitable and kind-hearted, but inappropriate. Those efforts are best left to individuals and to institutions established for that purpose.

But Mitchell’s proposed reforms also have excellent potential to improve the value of MOOCs to students as well. Pricing MOOCs—even with nominal figures—heightens the sense of value that a student places on the course, and encourages completion of the material. And screening students through some kind of application process prevents students from finding themselves in courses they dislike and immediately leave.

Nevertheless, Mitchell perhaps hopes too audaciously when he suggests that quelling the mass exodus early in each MOOC “semester” could mitigate disruption and help build “cohesion” and community within the group. Students who drop out are less likely to have participated before they left; and those who engage with their peers on discussion threads are statistically less likely to leave. Whether lethargic participants drop a course is unlikely to change much in the group dynamic for those who stay; that dynamic is already tenuous, largely anonymous, and detached.

Even if courses shrank from 10,000 students to 1,000—a mere tenth of the original size—they would still face immense difficulty in providing students a workable intellectual community. And so long as other free educational opportunities remain, students might abandon a priced Stanford Online course for a free course elsewhere, perhaps on EdX, or a non-Signature Track course from Coursera, which would simply result in swelling of the class sizes there. And the added cost of instituting Mitchell’s proposed admissions process and paying staff to carry it out inflates costs and creates a larger course-cost burden for colleges to recoup. Nor do these reforms tackle the innate difficulties in teaching certain subjects—such as philosophy, politics, English, literature—that require the ethos of embodied presence and the Socratic interactions of real-time discussion in order to fully probe their roots.

But still, Mitchell’s comments indicate several steps in the right direction towards making MOOCs more valuable to the higher education community. Other MOOC providers would do well to take Mitchell’s advice to heart. 

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