The economic problem with MOOCs

MOOC stands for “Massive Open Online Course.” The MOOC was the brainchild of computer science people at flashy schools like Stanford and MIT. They have desperately “bold” names like Udacity and Coursera and edX. CompSci people are often on the forefront of ideas that are disruptive to American culture (a position I heartily endorse). And the idea here was to provide people the world over with access to the teaching of some of the best minds on a given subject. For free. In its best iteration, it would work something like the Khan Academy (or like the Khan Academy used to work before it was corrupted by the need to control entry and issue “badges”).

Like so many things in higher ed, MOOCs are a half-baked idea that administrators piled onto for 1) the glory of being an early tech adopter and 2) the chance to make lots of money.

Wait, money? I though MOOCs were free? How do you make money on a free product?

Good question. The answer is, you don’t. Unless you charge for it, and then it’s not free. And if you’re going to charge, you’re going to have to track who’s taking the course, and so it’s no longer “open” either, at least not in the way that most tech people use to the word

So what qualities will MOOCs retain? Massive and Online. MOOCs from the higher ed administrator’s point of view are all about scalability. Here, they think, is the answer to their prayers, a way to enroll hundreds of thousands of students without having to hire more faculty or build larger more buildings. Moreover, the potential student pool is the whole world. That’s a lot of people, and if you can get only 100,000 or so enrolled who pay a pittance for some sort of “badge” or certificate (say, $10), that’s a lot of money. It really is the Walmart approach: getting lots of people to pay a little bit in order to accumulate a huge pile of cash.

That assumes, of course, that people are willing to pay for these essentially useless badges. Current data suggests they are not

Well, at least MOOCs cheap to put together.

Not true. Currently, MOOCs don’t cost the universities putting them together much money because they are being funded by venture capitalists. But they do require a lot of infrastructure and talent.

First, there’s the platform. That takes time and money to create, update and maintain. 

Next, the professor who is putting together the course. I heard one of these profs speak. He told me that he filmed about 35 hours of lecture material. That doesn’t count the time he spent putting the actual lecture material together. Right now, experts are donating their time, but how sustainable is that? Not very.

Then that 35 hours has to be turned into 7 watchable lectures. The people who do that are highly skilled. They make a lot of money, and rightly so. And then there are the people who have to put up the content and maintain the course sites.

MOOCs are only economically viable when you can get lots of people enrolled and paying for it, which is, of course, antithetical to the whole “open” idea. 

Next up, the pedagogical problem with MOOCs…