Must MOOCs Be Profitable For Universities To See Benefits? (MOOCs, Part 1)

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Classes, are the latest innovation in online learning from major universities around the country. The courses, often managed through companies like Coursera (founded by two Stanford professors), offer open enrollment and free access to course content, but they may not always offer any feedback to enrolled students. The courses are often run in concurrence with a traditional class on the same material, thus enabling the professor to put in little to no additional work when running the course. For example, if the course I am teaching right now was a MOOC, I would simply upload my lecture slides to my MOOC site, provide all students with the syllabus, and put the tests online (AFTER my students had taken them in class) so that online registrants could check their progress.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, MOOCs have become the subject of much media scrutiny; they have also been widely criticized for not being profitable, at least not in the traditional sense. Doug Guthrie, Dean of the George Washington University School of Business, roundly criticized Coursera and suggested universities steer away from the service in an editorial for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The New Yorker highlighted the controversies surrounding technology and education, including online classes, in an article from April of last year. The New York Times detailed the struggles of Coursera to turn a profit, but highlighted efforts to award college credit for the completion of Coursera courses.

The question facing universities is whether lack of profit should be the deciding factor regarding whether to offer MOOCs. There is no current evidence that MOOCs can be used as an additional, significant source of revenue for universities. And MOOCs strongest proponents seem unlikely to argue that they could ever replace sources of funding like private donors and state support, even if they do eventually bring in money to the school. There will be no MOOC Halls in the future.

Beyond direct revenue, are there benefits MOOCs can provide that may be revenue related? One possibility is that participation in groups like Coursera will help raise the university’s profile around the world. A skilled professor who puts together a quality online class on a popular topic may inspire students around the world to apply to her university. Publicity from Coursera could prompt agencies to give grants to the university as they become aware of fine work being done at that school. The online courses presented for free may also inspire alumni to give more to their alma maters. MOOCs may act more as a PR move than anything else, with many benefits and few downsides for everyone involved.

MOOCs also offer a chance to bring big data into education; Tony brought this to my attention while we were having lunch today. Professors seldom have a chance to test out new material and see how it affects learning, mostly because classes are too small, opportunities for differentiation are limited, and they may fear hurting one half of the class by using an alternative method of presentation or a different test style. But if professors have access to 20,000 students enrolled online, then it is possible to prep two different lecture styles, present one to each half of the class, and assess differences in learning. This idea is so valuable that I hope to write about it more in a future blog post; it may be the best case for using MOOCs, even if they don’t bring in revenue.

Universities may also wish to consider the revenue question in reverse: What is the cost of deploying MOOCs? If professors were all mandated to move their courses online, complete with lecture video recordings and grading for all enrolled students, whether they pay tuition or not, then the cost is enormous. But if universities allow professors to move their courses online, and if professors are given full discretion as to what they put online (e.g., a professor could do little more than she does currently–post lecture slides, etc.), then the cost is minimal. And if benefits come for almost no cost, then MOOCs seem like a potential win for universities, even if MOOCs don’t become a significant source of direct revenue for the school. No MOOC profit doesn’t mean no MOOC benefit.

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