I didn't get a lot of feedback on my post on massive open online courses (MOOCs) (Have you tried MOOCS? What did you think?), but I wanted to continue my discussion as a way of clarifying my own thoughts. It also makes a welcome break from the current Australian election campaign!
I suppose I should start by explaining further why I am interested in MOOCs.
To begin with, what is a MOOC? In simple terms, MOOC stands for:
- Massive. The platforms used allow for almost any number of enrolments. In Autumn 2011, Stanford launched three courses each of which had over 100,000 enrolments. That's massive.
- Open. The courses are open to anyone. There are no limitations on entry. Further, participation has been free, although that is changing.
- Online. The entire course is delivered online. There is no campus.
- Course. Students are enrolled in specific courses of varying lengths.
A free course from major institutions taken in your own home? What's the catch? Well, there are two. The first is that it requires a certain level of determination to get through. Completion rates are as low as 10%. The second is that, in the past, you got no recognition for your efforts. That's fine if you were doing something just for the sake of learning, not so good if you wanted something to put on your CV.
The costs involved in setting everything up are obviously tremendous, and then you give it away. Is that sustainable? No, its not. An institution might do certain things as an ad-on, but you can't do it in a core way for ever. There has to be money in it.
Now here we come to the basic product of a university or recognised training institution. It's not the course, but the qualification or tick at the end that counts. In measuring the economic value of education, for example, economists don't measure the value of the course, but of the qualification at the end.What extra income do people with degrees get?
Now once you have a mass audience, some at least may want to get the qualification. So what do you now do? You charge them for a test or exam and, if they pass, you give them the formal tick. As a former CEO of a specialist medical college, I know this system well. We charged our trainees a membership fee, that covered certain costs, but we also charged them an examination fee for the exams that they had to sit to test scientific knowledge.
Can you see why universities are worried? I enrol in the course at no charge, then if I am doing well I pay for my test and get my qualification. Bingo, I am a graduate. It's actually not quite as simple as that. In my next post, I will look in more detail at the economics of MOOCs.