Maybe it’s ironic
From the latest breathless NYTimes article on MOOCs:
Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs. Contracts provide that if a revenue stream emerges, the company and the universities will share it.
Although MOOCs will have to be self-sustaining some day — whether by charging students for credentials or premium services or by charging corporate recruiters for access to the best students — Ms. Koller and university officials said that was not a pressing concern.
I suppose it’s ironic for me to be saying this–given my line of work–but I have concerns about the business model for MOOCs. Not the “build it and they will come” aspect, because I’ve made a good living off of that proposition, but more the cost of the building. I’m a little afraid that MOOC content is largely going to fall into the sour spot between OpenCourseWare content, which is really cheap to produce, and truly useful adaptive learning content, which is really costly to produce.
OCW content costs in the single to tens of thousands to produce; MIT’s model, which is fairly costly, runs about $10K per course. Most other OCWs out there spend far less, often as little as $3K per course. Of course, for that investment, you largely get static PDFs that were used in classrooms, rather than online courses. To create an OCW course with video is about $5K to $25K depending on the recording setup and production value.
I just completed a review of Taylor Walsh’s Unlocking the Gates, which chronicles–among other projects–Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, one of the few online course efforts with significant science behind it. In that profile, Taylor reports the OLI team doesn’t believe they’ll get their cost per course down to anything less than about $500K.
Now I would guess that the cost per course for some entrants into the MOOC space has been in the $500K range, especially those with more robust automated feedback, but I doubt many of the more recent entrants will spend that much. So let’s say that it’s more in the range of $250K, or an order of magnitude more expensive. Assuming that doesn’t buy you particularly robust automated feedback, is the cost jump worth it? Is it sustainable?
I’ve been taking the Udacity statistics course, and at least through the first unit, the automated feedback consists of a clever integration of boxes to enter answers to question directly into the video screen, but no scaffolding or support to help you if you are stuck on a question or adaptive elements (that I can discern) to route you through topics depending on your skill level. The delta between the little box that says “You got it right!’ or “You got it wrong.” and the answer on a chalkboard or PDF is not that big, but I’m guessing the cost to get there is.
And the cost to get from there to real adaptive learning is likewise a big jump, and not one that I think many schools will be willing to make. So my guess is that many of the universities that are joining Coursera are either investing too much in their course materials or too little. Too little, and it’s not clear the experience will be worth it to students to pay for; too much and the schools may not be able to recover costs.
In a system where nobody–the content provider, the platform provider, or the student–has any obligations to anyone else, the barrier to entry is low–as it is with OCW–and the barrier to exit is also very low. This means they are not likely to convert more than a very small fraction of students to paying customers, and the easiest option for participating schools will be a quick exit.
Will be interesting to watch.