MOOCs, sustainability and the business model

A MOOC is more than just a free sample!

Anyone with a Moodle site can offer a MOOC: two fundamental questions we need to ask are How do we make it effective for learners? and How do we make it a meaningful and worthwhile activity for the organiser / provider? This post focuses on the second question, which relates to the need for educational offerings to be sustainable for the provider.

If the provider is a large institution such as a university, sustainability is ‘cushioned’ by the existing staff and other resources. That is, the costs of developing and delivering it can be subsidised by the university’s other income-generating activities. A MOOC can be justified in rather the same way that a business may offer free stuff online as a way of gaining other benefits such as raising their profile. It’s similar to handing out free samples of new products in the supermarket. But taking the same approach for an educational institution is risky, because its core activity cannot be reduced to such a simplistic model.

Of course, a MOOC may be justified not in business terms but in philosophical or ethical terms such as a commitment to open learning and overcoming barriers to education. But as Jeff Haywood points out in No such thing as a free MOOC, there are always costs associated. These may be direct or indirect, such as taking teaching staff away from other activities.

So it’s essential to ask, as Hayward does, How will we sustain it? He goes on to state that his institution plans to impose a ‘modest charge for the ‘certificates of completion’, and we will use that income to pay for our support for learners, offered in the light-touch form that these types of MOOC use.‘ Since he does not mention the cost of assessment, I assume that these ‘certificates of completion’ are similar to what used to be called in face to face courses ‘certificates of attendance’. That is, they confirm only that the participants took part in the MOOC, not that they necessarily learned or achieved anything. Indeed, ‘light-touch support’ is perhaps only going to be appropriate where assessment is not rigorous!

Hayward also acknowledges that there is a lot that still needs to be learned about delivering MOOCs, including ‘Is the experience helpful to learners, and do they get value from their certificates of completion?‘ In my experience, a certificate of participation is often seen as having little relevance since it is not based on any rigorous assessment of achievement. Professional development activities in institutions many years ago often used to incorporate such as certificates but over time there was a move away from them as they provided little real value.

I fully support MOOCs as a worthwhile professional development activity. But because they are unlikely to incorporate a high level of learner support and rigorous assessment, they will not be appropriate for all students in all contexts. They may used to provide a ‘taster’ as a marketing exercise, but this involves applying a business model which may not be appropriate. It’s essential to find a model of resourcing their development and delivery which is sustainable and which enhances rather than undermines the institution’s existing programmes.

4 thoughts on “MOOCs, sustainability and the business model

  1. Pingback: OpenER » MOOC en businessmodellen

  2. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

    MITx has automated course grading software, so it does not cost almost anything for even 1 million students + it is reliable, honost
    MITx has students identification software, so there is no cheating
    As Jef and you say and also I say
    there is nothing free in this world.
    Important thing is enough customer for your products.
    MITx+Harvardx have a target of 1 billion students in the world
    that means they can collect $ 10 billion a year 3 times more than MItx and harvard budgets.
    Once one find the volume of millions students cost is no problem.
    That means be international. Plus USA will get the foreign currency in $ 10 billion . Still not bad .
    MIT+Harvard+Stanford+Yale+Princeton+Caltech can find easily 1-2 billion a year. Sustainable .

    1. Paul Left Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Muvaffak.

      I agree that the cost of delivering materials and automated assessment is negligible. But more significant costs are incurred when we need to provide learning support and when we need to manually assess. I believe that both of these are essential in some (but not all) educational contexts. eg the Master of Education courses I teach on require more project based assessment and a lot of one-to-one and group support. These are what give some university courses their special character – any move away from this (to more automated assessment with low levels of support) would tend to damage this special character and make the institution less rather than more competitive.

      Thanks again, great to hear from you!


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