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.
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.
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.