What’s the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix?

5 05 2012

I think the answer to that question is either going to be “branding” or “not much at all.” I guess you’ll have to read all the way to the end of the post in order to figure out which one I eventually decide upon.

So David Brooks of the NYT wrote a column about online learning and it’s not nearly as awful as you might imagine because he at least retains some skepticism. He concludes:

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

His impetus for this was the announcement of edX, a non-profit partnership between Harvard and MIT to offer free online courses from both schools. From the original NYT report on that joint venture:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

When reading stuff like that, you have to remember that not-for-profit doesn’t mean non-revenue. After all, Harvard is non-profit, but they certainly care about revenue otherwise tuition there would be free (or at least a lot less). If Harvard’s free online courses were as good as Harvard’s extremely expensive face-to-face courses, nobody would enroll at Harvard in Cambridge anymore. So you might be taking a free online course from Harvard, but you’re not “attending” Harvard when you do.

Harvard and MIT are, in essence, extending their brands to the online world. Since those brands are respectable, David Brooks hopes that the free courses will be respectable also. Count me among the unconvinced.

You can’t get something for nothing. Therefore, I’ve been wondering what the revenue model for free MOOCs is going to be. If it’s not tuition, what are Harvard and MIT expecting to get from this joint venture? Good will? That would be fiscally irresponsible. They can’t sell textbooks because that isn’t 21st century enough. If everyone in the MOOC bought their own Harvard sweatshirt that would be a start, but you and I both know that that wouldn’t satisfy them.

While Nick Carr is writing about Facebook here, I think he might have found (in 2006!) the underlying principle through which MOOCs will eventually make money:

One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

I’m not saying that they’ll sell advertising or give students an opportunity to play Farmville, but the concentration of so many eyeballs on a single web platform can be extraordinarily lucrative to the people who control that platform. Maybe they’ll charge for “badges.” That wouldn’t destroy the original Harvard education. Maybe they’ll charge edtech companies to make them apps. Maybe they’ll go data mining. Maybe they’ll start charging entrepreneurial professors for the privilege to teach there.

No matter which way they make back their investment, it’s clear that the rich are looking for new ways to get richer while the poor (namely everyone in the public sector) continue to flounder and will probably flounder indefinitely. [Sounds like the rest of American society, doesn't it?] After all, the states and the federal government, the crucial source for revenue in public higher education, are too fiscally strapped to do their duty. Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah, competition from the for-profit sector. This time, however, the competing product is going to be much cheaper.

OK, that’s the answer to my title question. Maybe this is the thing that’s been keeping me up at night. Or perhaps greed will take over.

Only time will tell.


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7 responses

5 05 2012
VanessaVaile

I’m partial to the bionic MOOC representation of EdX and Bon Stewart’s take, which you might appreciate, especially the part about it making her itchy. Having some 1st hand experience with “old line” (egad how fast aging happens on the webz) MOOCs, I hesitate to tar all with the same brush but did not grow up observing south Louisiana politics and Big Oil without cultivating a certain skepticism. They are also as skeptical as you. We’re all waiting for the next shoe to drop. What do they expect to get out of it? My guess would be control ~ of higher ed, of assessment and credentialing (that, not badges, will be where the money is), content. Think that might be enough even for them?

5 05 2012
VanessaVaile

and of course that includes controlling the data

5 05 2012
6 05 2012
More on #BonkOpen and other MOOC-iness | Full Circle Associates

[...] Rees – What’s the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix? (this idea strikes fear into my [...]

10 05 2012
“Don’t go for second best, baby.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] let’s start firmly within the usual subject matter for this space. Peter Cohan writes about edX in Forbes: So if pricing is a market signal, what message is the free edX sending out to consumers [...]

30 05 2012
Digital sharecropping: Higher education edition. « More or Less Bunk

[...] I noted when I used this quote before, he’s writing about Facebook there, but the more I learn about MOOCs the more I think there [...]

19 05 2013
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