You are here

Who’s going to pay for MOOCs? Anyone?

Free MOOC platforms still have operating costs and providers will one day hope to turn a profit. How much will these courses be worth?
University Business, August 2013

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have undeniable appeal: they can support hundreds of thousands of students, are accessible to all, are taught by top faculty at prestigious universities, and, of course, are free…at least for now.

MOOC platforms have operating costs and providers would eventually hope to turn a profit, so the gravy train will end at some point. How much will these courses be worth? First, we need to figure out if MOOCs will cannibalize revenue or grow it. On one hand, the sheer volume of students’ taking free for-credit courses could tamp down the demand for traditional brick-and-mortar, tuition-based learning and thus depress the prices. On the other hand, if universities are getting a percentage of enrollment fees, then it could potentially be a lucrative venture.

One thing is certain: students will pay only if MOOCs provide value. So what constitutes value? Well, learning is a uniquely complex commodity with a host of factors that figure into how much they are typically willing to fork over, including: prestige of the university, degree programs, quality of professors, course content, class sizes, student profiles, social factors, financial aid, proximity or convenience, career placement and more. Some of this is present in a MOOC, but it’s not clear where the boundaries are. For example, will you make professional contacts for life through your MOOC? Maybe, maybe not. Focusing on the overall learning experience can help develop a solid value proposition that spans the myriad demand factors and lays a foundation for pricing for the masses.

Value-added knowledge?
So how do the MOOC experiences stack up in terms of a solid learning experience? Currently, MOOCs seem to be viewed as value-added knowledge as evidenced by the low retention rates they’re reporting. Many reasons explain low retention, including the basic fact that they are free, so students can be non-committal. The cost of taking a free course is only time, so why not take a course from a prestigious university taught by a top professor? The course may or may not advance a career, but will satisfy a curiosity.

Another reason MOOC’s may be showing low retention rates is the lack of real-time interactivity. Udacity, Coursera and edX follow the same mold: a series of recorded lectures followed with assignments. None of which involve personal interaction with the professor or other students. The platforms, and in some cases the professors themselves, send emails to remind students to participate. Threaded discussion forums and quizzes are also designed to boost engagement, but is that all there is?

Increasing interactivity and offering something akin to a “real” face-to-face classroom experience would provide much more value to these courses and boost the low retention rates. For example, integrating Web-based videochat into the experience will enable students and professors to discuss, debate, present and just make the learning experience more multi-dimensional. Ultimately, adding synchronous learning elements help restore integrity of the classroom environment, just as they have in some closed distance-learning programs.

If you don’t interact with anyone, who’s going to miss you when you drop out? And if you drop out, who’s going to pay for the course? The bottom line is that MOOCs are business propositions whether they’re used mainly for promotion of the brand or, eventually, as a direct revenue source. Either way, why not make them better?

Rony Zarom is founder and CEO of Watchitoo (