This is how MOOCs end…

5 06 2013

I once had great aspirations to finish the Nutrition MOOC that I started a little while back. It was the beginning of summer for me and the amount of time I had seemed endless. It wasn’t. I wasn’t even going to do the assignments this time around. I just wanted to watch the video. Maybe I’ll get to the lecture on superfoods one of these days before the whole course goes bye-bye, but the page proofs for my refrigeration book arrived a few days ago so I have a lot of work to do.

That’s why I’m through with MOOCs. I’m not through with writing about them (although you might not see me write all that much for this space until that manuscript gets done and I write up the index); I’m just through with taking them. It’s kind of a shame as there are so many interesting courses out there that I might enjoy, but I really don’t have the time. There’s family, there’s work, there’s TV, there’s reading…indeed, there’s even all the time it takes to write posts for this blog. Who has time for MOOCs? People who (for whatever reason) have nothing better to do.

I can just see the angry comments now: “I finished CS whatever and I have a family and a day job and time to watch Mad Men whenever I want to because I have a DVR!!!” I’m sure you did and that does make you special. So special that there’s no way that Coursera can ever make money solely by catering to people like you because there are so few of you around.

To survive, Coursera has to cater to people who are willing to pay for the privilege of watching superprofessors on videos. In effect, they have to convince the general public to make taking MOOCs their job. For that to happen, Coursera has to be able to turn that experience into some kind of actual degree. You can’t displace college with certificates or badges. You have to give grades so that employers can distinguish between average candidates and great ones. You have to convince both students and employers alike that your MOOC is just as good as an actual college degree.

None of this is ever going to happen.

I’m taking flack for believing that Coursera is the next Pets.com here and elsewhere, so I thought I’d sum up why I believe this with three simple reasons:

1) Students won’t pay for an automated education.

Put yourself in a college student’s shoes for a moment. You want to graduate someday and get a job. You’ve heard that college may be a scam these days, but you went anyways. Maybe someone will give you a discount for taking a MOOC course someday, but nobody who’s just “flipping the classroom” is offering that discount yet. Don’t you think this kind of looks like an elaborate scam by professors to get out of doing their job (ie. teaching)? Embrace digital sharecropping as an educational tool rather than a business plan and that impression will only grow stronger.

The key difference between paying students and Coursera’s current core constituency is that people who have nothing better to do are comparing MOOCs to no education at all. College age or college-ready people will be comparing it to their previous forms of instruction. Even if they get their secondary school degree online, they will at least have experience with a living, breathing instructor on the other end of the computer screen. They will not pay thousands of dollars to be treated like a widget. Besides, even if they will there’s no guarantee that banks will keep on loaning students whatever they need to pay for MOOC U..

The hilarious thing about this argument is that Coursera is practically conceding it already. Did you see that paper by Koller, Ng, et. al. wrote for the Educause Review? It concludes:

Ultimately, though, it is important to recognize that retention is only one of many factors underlying success in MOOCs and, arguably, far from the most important for many students. The goal of education is to provide students with the skills they need to achieve their own life goals, not to retain individuals in a classroom. Given the broad range of motivations in the population of students who participate in MOOCs, the true challenge of online education will be to identify what students want to get from their virtual classroom experience and help them achieve those goals.

I certainly didn’t achieve my goal in my Nutrition MOOC. Was this Coursera’s fault? No. Was it the superprofessor’s fault? No. It was my fault, and there’s not a bloody thing Coursera can possibly do to fix that. Despite their cheery optimism, this is a problem because people who drop out of a MOOC (sometimes even before it starts) will never be paying Coursera or the university that created their MOOC for anything. They are free-riders. Charge for MOOCs and they might go away, but so will all those eye-popping registration numbers that the MOOC providers use to convince us all that their rise is inevitable.

Koller, Ng, et. al, are just trying to buy time until they come up with an actual business plan. Pets.com would be proud. I think Drew Loewe nailed this one on Twitter:

If only 5-10% of Coursera’s students finish their courses, only 5-10% of their students will ever pay them anything. What are they going to do if that happens? Sing “Please Don’t Go” to departing students? Hold pledge drives?

But suppose I’m wrong. There’s still another happy outcome for the cause of education.

2) Coursera won’t make ENOUGH money to satisfy its investors.

You all remember the big announcement about Coursera and state universities last week? Alex Usher was not impressed:

Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue. Oh sure, it had a bunch of ideas about how to do it, which were outlined in this leaked MOU with the University of Michigan, but few seem to have panned out. The only thing we’ve heard from Coursera is that their idea for charging people for certificates of completion netted $220,000 in Q1 of this year. Given that Coursera’s annual burn rate seems to be in the neighbourhood of $10M (that’s on top of their partners spending $50K/course to place it on the Coursera platform), this is peanuts. Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.

So now, with no money coming in, and no new round of venture financing announced since last year (attention education journalists: go interview some Coursera investors – they’re key to this story), it announced this week that it would be working with partners like the University of West Virginia and the University of New Mexico – places which Coursera swore in writing to its AAU/U-15/Russell Group partners that it would never allow to offer MOOCS, because it would taint the brand. Together with these institutions, Coursera will be developing something called “campus-based MOOCs”, which, upon closer inspection, is completely indistinguishable from what we’ve called “blended learning” for roughly a decade now.

As Facebook stock has already demonstrated, having lots of eyeballs on your product is not the same as making lots of money. So when when Lisa Lane (who’s actually on my side on all the most important issues here) writes:

To say that MOOCs will fade away because they’re of poor quality or bad pedagogy is like saying that McDonalds will go away because the food is unhealthy and the chairs are too hard, or that Walmart will disappear because the service is awful and it’s a lousy shopping environment. Convenience and price will win, regardless of quality.

I respond: Mickey D’s and Walmart aren’t giving their product away for free. Moreover, unlike going to McDonald’s or Walmart, which are both convenient and fast, MOOCs have opportunity costs. Every moment you spend watching your superprofessor is a moment that you aren’t doing something you might enjoy doing more. Start charging for this stuff and watch the students melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West. And the MOOC space seems to be getting more crowded all the time…

But suppose I’m wrong again. Good thing there’s always one last line of defense.

3) Most faculty will never let their departments award credit for completing them.

I was having the MOOC conversation a little while back with a historian who teaches at a very large, well-known (thanks to its sports programs) state university. He told me that a deanlet came around a while back and asked his department about whether they’d be OK with accepting credit through MOOCs. He then told me that he and his colleagues all laughed and told the deanlet to go crawl back under the rock from which he emerged. I’m not talking Harvard here. My friend also told me their 6-year graduation rate and it is absolutely abysmal. However, the folks in the history department there have enough integrity not to crater to whatever the current whim happens to be. Graduating more people is of no use to anyone if you degrade their education in order to make that happen. If the deanlet comes back with pressure, just imagine what a strongly-worded letter to that schools accrediting body could accomplish.

Lucky for us, if a majority of professors become superprofessors, none of them will be particularly super anymore. Phil Hill, the smartest guy in the edtech commentary business, and somebody who practically never agrees with me (Hmmm…that didn’t come out right) is right there with me on this:

The MOOC providers set out to revolutionize higher education, but as Daphne Koller indicated the usage of standalone MOOC courses to date is not sufficient, despite the huge numbers of enrolled students. The data points to the need for targeting degree-seeking students in a more aggressive manner than the current “it’s open for all” approach while also finding more immediate methods for allowing MOOC students to earn academic credit. To allow for academic credit for MOOCs, the actual course designs and assessment have satisfy accrediting bodies, and the credits have to be accepted by degree-granting institutions.

In other words, faculty (whether in the departments or as part of accrediting bodies) are the exclusive arbiters of what constitutes a higher education. It is our job to say what college is. Our say will make the difference between profit and loss for companies like Coursera, which is why Phil sees the future as MOOC providers and universities working together. So what’s Coursera doing? Trying its best to cut most faculty members out of the discussion. This actually makes sense as I can’t see any reason why people like me would ever do more than laugh at MOOCs as currently constituted. Sure, they may get better, but not if they remain completely automated or crowdsourced. That’s what makes MOOCs massive. That’s what makes MOOCs cheap. That’s what makes MOOCs MOOCs.

Ultimately, universities and MOOC providers are both in the education business. They have convenience. We have quality. If MOOCs become a widely-accepted form of education, then (as Lisa suggests) convenience probably will top quality. So why on earth would we ever let that happen? Shoveling every potential student on the planet into a degree program with a 10% completion rate is not a sustainable business strategy for MOOC providers or universities. We will eventually run out of potential (to appropriate a term that Marc Bousquet uses in a different context) waste product – particularly if we want to charge that waste product practically anything in order not to pass our automated classes.

Hey! That gives me a crazy idea: Why don’t we try to educate the students we have better instead of recruiting more? Perhaps because there isn’t enough money in that for the MOOC-providers VCs, who (as I keep saying) still have to be stopped before they wreak too much havoc in their death throes. This is as good a reason as any not not to lament the eventual, inevitable extinction of this incredibly destructive fad. In fifty years this MOOCs thing will look about as quaint as stuffing college students into phone booths and Volkswagens, activities with which they have more similarities than most of us currently realize.

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28 responses

5 06 2013
Lisa M Lane

I’m not sure there’s a “wrong” when we’re all trying to predict the future (something that historians are, historically, really bad at). But I don’t think “free” will be the focus. Universities aren’t adopting these as free classes; they’re adopting them to substitute for other “standard” online and on-site sections of the GE courses. They will charge students the same price per unit, or perhaps with a slight discount, but to accept them (and offer them) for credit I can guarantee they won’t be free.

BTW I wish I had more faith in #3. I’m not sure that, ultimately, it will come through the departments.

5 06 2013
Contingent Cassandra

One also has to factor in growing student (and parent) skepticism about online education of any kind (and I don’t think most of them are making the distinctions that at least some of us in higher ed make between MOOCs and traditional classes adapted to online formats, for-profit online-only institutions and online classes offered by traditionally brick-and-mortar schools, etc. etc.). I’m getting a steady trickle of students in my online classes (the traditional-sort-moved-online and offered by a brick-and-mortar university sort) who show up in my office (yes, the online students make a good deal of use of my face to face office hours) around mid-semester to talk about being seriously behind and say some version of “I should have known this wasn’t a good idea” or “I’m finding this doesn’t work well for me,” often combined with “and I know you warned us” (because I do). Mind you, there are others for whom the online approach works well, but they tend to be more mature (in years, work habits, or both) than the average student. While there may be a market for cheap degrees (perhaps especially among populations which are vulnerable because they don’t know many people who went to college, and understand how it works), a lot of students and parents are looking for quality, and they associate online classes (and also being taught by adjuncts and/or grad students) with poor quality, or at least a poor educational experience. They may be overly trusting of “we don’t do that” or “we’re different” assurances (I’ve run into a number of parents who don’t seem to realize that “you won’t be taught by grad students here” probably means the school has limited grad programs, and so uses a lot of adjuncts, while “you won’t be taught by adjuncts” means there’s a plentiful supply of grad students), but they *are* increasingly skeptical. The publicity about MOOCs may actually backfire, by giving them another easy thing to make sure the school they’re thinking about attending *doesn’t* do.

Also, I seem to be hearing a lot of stories about applications and/or matriculations being down lately, at quite different sorts of institutions (e.g. St. Mary’s of Maryland, South Carolina State U), and with different reasons named. I wonder whether this is finally the end of the baby boom echo “bump,” or the combined effects of the recession and tighter student loan rules/higher rates, or increased skepticism about the value of college, or, perhaps, all of the above combined?

In any case, I don’t think it bodes well for a business trying to squeeze a profit out of higher ed, especially the general education classes that universities are already using as cash cows to subsidize higher-level, more expensive to teach classes (which, of course, is why they’re wiling to consider MOOCs, *if* MOOCs would be cheaper than their current approach, which they’re already spent years making as dirt-cheap as possible through the use of adjuncts &/or grad students, large class sizes, scantron tests, etc., etc.) Higher ed already has several layers of mostly non-teaching administrators to support that weren’t there a few decades ago (and decreased state aid to do it with); I don’t think we can manage to keep a bunch of edupreneurs and their venture capitalists and/or shareholders happily profitable as well. Uncle!

5 06 2013
Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (@iaboyeji)

As for your last point. In developing countries they will.. They already are.. #nuffsaid

7 06 2013
Historiann

Great post, Jonathan. One of the things that MOOCworld doesn’t get is the fact that people believe that they get what they pay for, and that in some things (higher ed included), paying more for a service means that people have more confidence in its actual value. To be sure, that assumption is not always valid, but that’s how most people thing about higher ed.

True story: I used to teach at a small, regional Catholic uni. Before I got there, that uni had commissioned a study by consultants to figure out how to get more students to apply and to increase their yield of accepted students. The consultants came back with a surprising answer: RAISE tuition! All along this university, run by an order of modest priests (Marianists), thought they were doing the Catholic families in their region a favor by keeping tuition down & offering a private uni education at what they thought was a bargain price. And it was! But the problem was that when families compared their cost to the cost of other private unis, it was so low that the families assumed that that uni must be offering a lower-status and lower-value degree.

So guess what? That uni raised tuition, and that very year their applications skyrocketed, their yield was better, and they did a better job in attracting the highly successful H.S. grads that they wanted. Moral of the story: offerings the best product at the lowest cost (or free!) doesn’t always work, because people assume at some point that they’re getting what they pay for.

And as you point out, charging nothing and requiring students to put no skin in the MOOC game means that their attrition rate is what it is. Further, Cassandra’s comments about the value people are beginning to associate with standard online courses is another point to consider. (I’ve heard this from my students, too–they’ve taken classes online, but they value face-to-face instruction more, and they prefer it because they believe it works better.)

7 06 2013
duhring

If teachers do have the power to shape education themselves as you suggest, then guess who wins?

Google.

We started a Google+ community called “Using Google Apps as a Free LMS” a couple of months ago because we wanted to experiment with our own online courses and no one provided tools.

http://bit.ly/UGAFreeLMS

Certainly Udacity and Coursera could offer “create your own course” offerings, but I suspect their VCs would block it.

7 06 2013
duhring

A link to a professional development course created with Google tools: http://wiobyrne.com/embedding-technology-instruction-in-common-core-state-standards-a-mooc/

Are online tools suitable for teachers (non-superprofessors)?

9 06 2013
Anonymous

There are lots of things against this argument. First of all I can simply said that we should assume “education” as a “public good”, that means it is something like roads and bridges that all the society will benefit from it, so all society (via for example government subsidy) should pay for it. It is something like we have for primary (or basic) education that should be free for all.
In addition, it can be argued that making profit from this kind of investment needs time (even more than any other investment) until more and more people will be prepared via this system and go to work and making money all around the world, then gradually the benefit of this kind of education (for all) and how efficient it can be in working environment will be clear for all. Right now, It looks like we ask a little kid to go to work and make enough money to run a family, (s)he surely will do that one day in the future but right now it needs more supports to let it grow up and shows its power.
It also can be compare to free software (like Linux, Firefox,…) that are producing free good that all people will benefit from it, they also make money from donating, advertising and other ways instead of direct charging people.

At last, I think they misunderstand the “education for all” and “having a degree”, the first goal of Coursera (as long as I know of course) is providing well-prepared education for all and not preparing some degree from different well-known universities to fascinate our employers. It can be consider as a later goal but first and most important thing is bring high-ranked, updated education among people who don’t have any other way to reach it. And by asking money, you will automatically eliminate most of the targeted people who don’t have this money or can’t pay for it. Surely we will have free-rider -like the one who use all other public goods without paying for it- but it can’t be an excuse for charging people for it.

For me Coursera was a new port to have free access to all knowledge that I always dream to learn, there are some problems it its process for sure but just consider the wisdom it brings to the world especially for those who don’t have any access to high-level, well-prepared academic educations. I always said that instead of just claiming about the current situation, let’s think about how we can improve it and right now –thank to Coursera and other MOOCs- we also have enough knowledge to do that.

So please before bother yourself to write an article for or against something, just spend a time to see all of it and its benefits and costs.
Thank you

Thank you

9 06 2013
duhring

I updated my article linked with “Embrace digital sharecropping” above to include a comment and link to information about Duolingo, the wildly successful translation app, and their plans to make money going forward through student-generated translations.

In addition, a tweet about Thomas Friedman’s piece on internship today:

10 06 2013
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11 06 2013
Jenna

I think the introduction of MOOCs is going to be great for the community, however, I see them as a supplement to higher education – not a replacement. The open courses (although run by some Ivy League and world class institutions) are not reproduction of the universities original course and do not offer academic credit or recognisable qualification. I think they will be around in the long-term future, but see their primary function being as a means of self-development.

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[…] to educational values) down the throats of both students and faculty alike. I look forward to the inevitable, fast-approaching, post-xMOOC world because it will almost certainly be a period of real […]

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15 11 2013
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8 06 2013
Lisa M Lane

Ignore the man behind the curtain…

18 06 2013
duhring

Ah…. but most teachers are not coders. Google Course Builder is also open source, and they are working with developers to help the first wave of courses to come online. I’m finding it’s not straightforward to get production costs required for the various platforms.

9 06 2013
Lisa M Lane

I am a public employee at a public college and a strong believer in open access and public education, funded by public moneys. I have participated in several MOOCs, included the first one (CCK08) as both a credit and non-credit participant. I also run my own free, open course for professional development of online instructors. And yet I am a MOOC skeptic, not because I have a strong interest in the status quo, but because I have a strong interest in deep learning, an educated citizenry and public funding of education.

9 06 2013
Lisa M Lane

I mean that free isn’t always free, even when it’s open source. Moodle is a good example. Money is needed to provide the expertise to run such systems in many cases, and I expect the same will apply to any open source version of vendor software.

9 06 2013
Lisa M Lane

I don’t see an incompatibility with MOOCs as a concept (I support cMOOCs and their connectivity pedagogy) but rather with xMOOCs (protocommercial with generally inferior/automated pedagogical models).

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