MOOC reflections – and Coursera’s Business Model

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor who has just completed giving his first massively open online course.

Two of my most recent reflections on MOOCs were in many ways reflections about mathematics education in general, so instead of burying them here, where only the MOOC-curious would see them, I submitted them to the Mathematical Association of America as articles in my monthly series “Devlin’s Angle”, and that’s where you will find them.

The first, titled MOOC lessons, focused on the kind of learning that can take place in a MOOC.

In the second, The Darwinization of Higher Education, I looked at the likely effect of MOOCs on the higher education landscape. I originally submitted a shorter, “less-personal-blog” version as a post to my blog in The Huffington Post (Education Section), but much to my surprise, after sitting on it for over a week, they rejected it. Either I am way ahead of the HuffPost’s education editors or else they think I’m off my rocker (maybe both). It probably reflects on the massive uncertainty about where MOOCs are going, that I think there is a 5% chance I am off my rocker on this issue. A week ago I would have put that figure at 10%, but just this morning (a scant week after I had submitted my thoughts to HuffPost, and a mere 24 hours after I had sent the piece instead to the MAA) I received an email Coursera sent out to all past and present students.

It began thus:

Career Services: Finding great job opportunities

Coursera has begun Career Services with the goal of helping Coursera students find great jobs! Meeting great companies just got easier. Just go to <Coursera web page URL> and fill in your profile to opt-in to the service. After you opt-in, we will share your resume and other information you provide with selected partner companies who will introduce themselves if there’s a match.
We’re excited to connect you with great companies and new opportunities! Complete your profile here!

Remember, you read it first here. (As they say.)

Is this really Coursera’s business model (in the sense of the business model)? I am in no position to know. I suspect they don’t yet know either, how (and maybe if) they, or any other MOOC platform, will eventually make sufficient revenue to sustain their activities. Calling it “Coursera’s business model” in my title indicates only that it is a business model that the company has now announced. From my second article listed above, you will gather I think it is a smart move on their part. On the other hand, I can think of at least half a dozen others ways to monetize MOOCs, and at least as many ways for others to build businesses around the MOOC phenomenon.

I know many of my academic colleagues feel uneasy when education is discussed as a for-profit enterprise, but it has never been anything else. Someone has to pay. Usually, it is the student or the student’s family, either directly or indirectly. The novel aspect of the Ivy League MOOCs that I hope those colleagues see as positive is that the one person who does not pay is the student — at least on entry, which means that MOOC education is entirely free.

While on the topic of MOOC upsides, I had lunch recently with three of my fellow pioneer MOOC-instructors, and one substantial student demographic we all noticed was moms with young children (in many cases single moms, without the means to afford child care while they study). Hard to fault that.

We are entering a very different world in terms of access to higher education.

To be continued …


6 Responses to “MOOC reflections – and Coursera’s Business Model”

  1. 1 business model December 5, 2012 at 10:17 am

    There is definitely a start here, but who doesn’t graduate some school or university, and what kind of job this students can find if they live in India for example. The majority of the students from Venture-Lab are from Asia… can they work for US companies? maybe…

  2. 2 Janna Jacobson December 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I received an email from Coursera yesterday about the Career Services and went right up on the site to check it out. The career fields that you can select when you fill out the form seem entry level and tech-only in nature and your course was not on the list of courses considered to contribute to skills/background when I tried to submit my resume! (Thought you would want to know)

  3. 3 Keith Devlin December 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    A reader of the Devlin’s Angle article I linked to above just alerted me to this related article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

  4. 4 Shecky R December 6, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    If MOOCs are a threat to the status quo of traditional brick-and-mortar higher education, one wonders how much more of a threat they are to the digital online (for-profit) universities that have propagated in the last decade and demonstrated a great ability to take people’s money… without a commensurate ability to find them jobs upon graduation.

  5. 6 Ana Makarevich December 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    As a student I must say that knowledge from the best professors in the world is valuable itself. The course you’ve taught was the first step for me to maths and computer science.It was very hard, very challenging, but very rewarding (e.g., induction helps a lot with recursion!). I’m more optimistic about Coursera Career Services and will do my best to learn everything math and CS-related using free courses and maybe proving my knowledge paying for some proctored paid certification (the model that EDX is going to implement via Pearson centers). And I think this could be also a good idea for Coursera – to organize proctored exams and charge for that those who need official certificates while still giving free standard certificates (like those they give now).
    PS. Again I want to thank you, professor Devlin for your course and for making it so challenging!

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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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