Are MOOCs here to stay? The business model.

In a previous post, I gushed (more than a bit) about the potential mind-blowing impact that I believe MOOCs will have on innovation and evolution. And about how darn cool they are. But today, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Cool is fine, but how will it be financed? These things cost money, in some cases quite a lot, and I seriously doubt that the participating institutions relish the idea of continuing this investment with no return in sight. So, are we seeing the beginning of an education revolution? Or are MOOCs a brief fad that will fade away as the participants drop out?

I’m sure that it comes as no surprise that I am certain that they are here to stay, although I do believe that the format will undergo a few mutations. The benefits today and in the short-term of free online education are more than enough to justify the effort, and I’m not just talking about altruistic value to society. But they do require a re-think of how we educate and collaborate.

moocs are here to stay

At the moment, in general there is not a lot of revenue. And the benefits are intangible. They are, however, at the same time really important, and will become more so.

For the university, the benefits include extension of its brand, just like some bands put their songs online for free, to get more attendance at their revenue-earning concerts. Universities in the US and the UK are facing declining enrolment figures, and an outreach effort like the MOOCs is likely to encourage students to choose tech-savvy and “generous” institutions for their location-based education.

Also, more students online = more intellectual resources, both now and in the future. More alumni to include in future initiatives.

Participating professors benefit from getting their name out there, increasing their communication power and academic cachet.  We are already starting to see the rise of the “rock star” professor, whose fame and reach can be magnified by MOOCs, benefitting both him or her personally, as well as the university. And both universities and professors get the opportunity to join the education revolution, to learn from it and to help shape its future. Those that miss out will struggle to come up with an excuse as to why, and the “we don’t think MOOCs are worth the investment” line could well end up looking like the “Internet is just a passing fad” chorus of a couple of decades ago.

moocs are here to stay

If you want something more tangible, let’s think about the data benefits. We can learn more about how people learn. With tens of millions of people enrolled in online education, we finally have access to concrete data, and lots of it, about study methods, time invested, speed and absorption. This can tell us what works and what doesn’t, which can make teaching more efficient. We can become better teachers. Better teachers reaching more students… It sounds like a good combination to me.

More efficient teaching can also lower universities’ operating costs, which could bring down high tuition fees, a significant barrier to entry to an on-site university education.

For the individual professors, more efficient teaching can also free up time to write, research, spend more time with students… Best of all, according to some teachers: the option of automatic grading!

But no direct return on investment whatsoever? Some platforms are already starting to implement some revenue-generating services, which will maintain the almost-universal access while counting on scale to generate enough income to cover the (decreasing) costs of creating and distributing the courses. Official certificates, for example: the course is free, but to get certification, you will need to pay something. In-depth critiquing: peer grading is often offered on the free courses, but to get an experienced professor to critique your work, that will cost a bit extra. Content revenue: the MOOC could include the required texts in the free package, while selling additional and related material, online and/or offline, either on its own site or through an affiliate program. Corporate affiliations: I see no obvious reason why courses couldn’t have sponsors, assuming there’s no conflict of interest or possibility of influence – a course on Medieval Britain, for example, sponsored by British Airways. Course revenue: maybe not all courses will be free, perhaps some or even most can soon start to charge a nominal amount. 10€ or 20$ is not enough money to be considered a significant barrier to entry, especially as online payments get easier. But multiplied by tens of thousands of students, it can produce some very attractive revenues. Also, MOOC licensing could become a “thing”: other universities could licence your MOOCs to use as part of their on-location classes, a good option for them if they don’t have specialised faculty in your area. They would pay a licensing fee.

New businesses could spring up around MOOCs, proto-universities if you will, offering degrees for completion of curated MOOCs, with study groups, live discussion, maybe even a job placement program. These degrees may not have the same cachet as one from a top business school, obviously, but they could eventually earn a shine of their own. After all, only the truly motivated and disciplined see a MOOC all the way through to the end!

So, yes, I believe that MOOCs are here to stay. They will mature, as will we, the users. The business model will evolve. Meanwhile, more and more people around the world can enjoy access to information and ideas that will in turn generate more ideas and innovation. And along the way, we can learn so much about ourselves.

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For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education

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