Online Courses Find Favored Business Model But What about Quality?

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February 21, 2013; Source: Wall Street Journal

Although massive open online courses (MOOCs) are still in their early phases, several indicators seem to suggest two important and perhaps contradictory developments. First, universities are joining one MOOC operator, Coursera, in mass. Coursera recently announced that it has signed an additional 29 universities, bringing its total to 62. Meanwhile, the nonprofit MOOC provider edX has announced that it has signed six new schools, including some international universities. The latest wave of schools appears to be drawn to MOOCs due to a business model that might bring these universities some revenue if their courses are licensed by other educational institutions.

As we have previously noted, the licensing model has emerged as a viable business plan that could potentially be a win for university content providers, the businesses hosting these courses, and smaller regional universities who could provide such courses at lower costs than traditional courses. This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that edX offers a higher percentage of total revenues than Coursera, but edX requires that a minimum payment be made before any revenues transfer back to content creator universities. This minimum payment may help explain why Coursera has signed more universities than EdX.

In the midst of this expansion, however, Coursera has hit some stumbling blocks. One course had to be suspended due to technical difficulties. More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a professor resigned from a Coursera course because of a disagreement over how best to teach it. Richard McKenzie, an emeritus professor of enterprise and society at the University of California-Irvine’s business school, had raised issues during the course about the quality of student responses, while students had demanded that the course should be made less challenging.

Although a flock of universities seem to have converged on a business model that employs MOOCs, pedagogical questions about the quality of these online courses are likely to remain. As elite universities eye licensing their courses to other local and regional universities, will the MOOCs they plan on distributing be a lower quality educational experience? What do readers think? –Michelle Shumate

  • Fran Morris

    I am developing an online finance course with another Learning & Development e-specialist based on a successful face-to-face delivery model for 16 years. Having always thought, cynically, that online = e-reading (ie you read text on a screen and answer low-level questions, the usual style for compliance-type programs), we undertook research of the MOOC offerings and many others to find the two best in the world that we wanted to emulate. At the end of the research we were really disappointed.
    I went to enrol in the one which I thought might be the closest competitor to ours, but found it didn’t start till end April. Then you had to access the course each week for 14 weeks as the materials became available. That’s an interesting view of ‘online’. It’s really distance learning (and the process was just like 30 years ago where we posted our work back to the uni). From what I’ve seen, courses are being promoted as a loss-leader and the 10% completion rate isn’t impressive. The internet is just another delivery mechanism and if it has been created by a boring lecturer, it will be a dud. Which uni is going to ‘badge’ the completion of a range of courses? There are many unanswered questions.
    While the MOOC offerings are free, the ‘internet is the answer’ approach for many education providers is also a furphy. I worked for an organisation that thought a fabulous website would draw people who would immediately pay (over $1000) to do a course. Not so – people don’t pay for themselves in the work context and they have to go through an approval process. So we went back to the tried’n’ true brochures and direct mail! What goes round comes round. Sigh!