This week, the New York Times reported that, despite having more than 2 million students, Coursera, the leading provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs), is making no money for itself or for its 33 partnering universities.
But it doesn't matter. According to the participating universities I contacted, there's plenty to gain by teaching MOOCs and not much to lose, even if providers like Coursera go out of business.
MOOCs have "raised debate about how and why we do higher education the way we do, at a level and intensity that is unusual -- and that can only be a good thing," Jeff Haywood, CIO of the University of Edinburgh, told me in an email.
On Coursera, anyone can take free online courses created by real professors from a variety of prestigious universities. The University of Edinburgh already offers a handful of MOOCs on Coursera. Though some of the more than 200 classes available there are only a few hours long, others are the length of a full college semester. However, unlike with regular college courses, students have not been earning college credits for them.
Coursera is trying to change that by working with the American Council on Education (ACE), which determines whether a course is worthy of transfer credits. Two thousand universities accept credits that are ACE certified. One of the challenges of getting the ACE to buy in is the potential for cheating online. Coursera is looking into providing live online proctors for exams and using biometric authentication methods -- specifically, logging the unique pattern of each student's keystrokes.
The MOOC business could definitely be given a boost if it could deliver ACE-certified classes. In the meantime, universities are still finding value in the MOOC experience. For one thing, MOOCs give schools an opportunity to reach a global audience. This is good for students who can't afford a regular college education, and Haywood said schools can enhance their reputation, recruit new students, and support research efforts.
Ed Rock, director of open course initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, told me MOOCs have also inspired the faculty there to embrace technology in unprecedented ways.
Coursera "sparked a conversation and enthusiasm about using technology in the classroom that we've been trying to get going for 10 years," he said.
Not everyone's going to do this, but for some professors, the draw is the idea that maybe your course is going to become a hit. Some of it is fame and glory -- being the guy who teaches poetry to the world. It's not just intoxicating. It fills a genuine need around the world, and the ability to do that for what isn't a lot of money is something that a lot of people find very inspiring.
More importantly, he said, creating an MOCC enables professors to fundamentally change the way they teach their on-premises, in-person courses. Rock calls the experience "flipping the classroom." He cited the example of Robert Ghrist, a Penn professor who created an impressive Coursera calculus course. "Once [Ghrist has] prepared a Coursera course, he doesn't go back to teaching calculus the same way." Instead of using class time to lecture, the professor can simply tell students to watch the online lecture on their own time and use class time for more interactive, hands-on sessions.
According to Rock, the MOOC would be more like course materials -- it could take the place of a textbook. And this could be the way Coursera and the participating universities turn a profit.
Initially, I couldn't understand why a school would want to produce or use a Coursera course for the low-level gateway classes almost all colleges already offer, like Psychology 101. I figured that the advanced, niche topics that aren't provided everywhere would be the principal value of MOOCs. However, from a money-making standpoint, Rock convinced me otherwise.
"My expectation is that the gateway courses at Coursera -- the ones that are good -- are going to be very big competitors to the textbook market," he said. "If that takes off, that's a revenue stream. That's a real revenue stream. At this stage, I think we've made enough money to buy a cup of coffee."
Will MOOCs presented through third parties replace other kinds of online education? No. Schools working with Coursera on MOOCs are also using their internal platforms to present online, for-credit courses, for which they charge the same tuition they do for traditional, on-campus courses. Most of these online courses are aimed at graduate-level students.
For example, Johns Hopkins University "offers online courses in addition to those offered through Coursera, and has been doing so for some time," Geof Corb, senior director of IT enterprise applications at the school, told me in an email. "JHU does offer fully online degree programs for a small number of graduate degrees. Most of our online courses and programs are graduate level."
The University of Edinburgh also has lots of online for-credit courses. "We have a large suite of taught online courses, all at Masters level, and we run these ourselves on our systems alongside our on-campus courses -- which also use a lot of technology," Haywood said. "They are for credit. They are priced in the same way as on-campus courses, although we have very few courses that are on-campus and online for the same degrees, mostly because we are addressing different student populations."
How much do IT departments get involved with producing MOOCs? It depends on the school. Corb says the Johns Hopkins IT department is "by no means leading these efforts," but the situation is quite different at the University of Edinburgh.
"Personally, I lead this area for Edinburgh," said Haywood, who is both the CIO and a professor there. "The CIO role is about technology to assist the organization achieve its strategic goals, and as such, one needs to lead as well as partner."
And if Coursera went out of business? No big deal. "At the end of the day, it's just a platform." Rock said. "Our relationship with Coursera is non-exclusive," and Penn retains intellectual property rights.
Could the University of Edinburgh do this without a Coursera? "Hard to be sure," Haywood said.
As we only have a small number of MOOCs and the technology to run them isn't complex (we could do it ourselves, but prefer not to, given the scale) we could just decide it was worthwhile in reputation, student recruitment, educational R&D terms to make it worth the modest investment it would take. I personally would favor that. MOOCs will not solve the world's education problems, or even a country's problems, but they do allow us to explore new ways of doing things that are hard to test within the confines of our on-campus degree programmes and current scale of class sizes.
If you're an education CIO, start thinking more seriously about MOOCs. In the meantime, have a look at some of the classes you might want to take yourself. Penn is offering everything from poetry to gamification. The University of Edinburgh has "Artificial Intelligence Planning" and "E-Learning and Digital Cultures" on its Coursera list.