If you are involved with higher education, or e-commerce, you have probably heard of the latest-greatest innovation in learning, the MOOC, or massively online open course. MOOCs are free distance-learning, web-based classes that are open to anyone who chooses to enroll. Stanford University pioneered the concept and a couple of Stanford professors teamed up to found Coursera, a for-profit company that manages MOOC offerings from a number of august institutions, including Stanford, the University of Virginia, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and others. Yes, okay, higher education is obviously late to the party in terms of finally figuring out online+education=more people getting educated, but…they got there eventually. [NOTE: I've gotten a couple of messages since this blog was published from people who pointed out that MIT and the University of Manitoba are probably more deserving of the 'MOOC pioneers' label. If you want a longer discussion of the origins and complexities of MOOCs, read this excellent paper on the subject by a fellow at Korean Open National University.]
I signed up for Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, taught by Stanford’s Keith Devlin, who has more credentials than I can shake a stick at including buckets of awards and lots of published books and articles. There were plenty of other classes that might have been a more natural fit for a businesswoman with a liberal arts degree, but I’m a glutton for learning. And it seems to me that one of the benefits of this great educational experiment must be the opportunity to learn something outside of your comfort zone, from a pre-eminent expert in the subject, without any risk to your academic record. Sort of like taking a pass-fail course as an undergrad, only without the giant tuition payment (without direct contact with the professor, or your TA, of course, but, hey, it’s FREE.)
However, this approach can come with collateral damage to your ego. Did I mention that I am not so great at math? I never took high school calculus and I think I spent most of algebra trying to figure out how to get the hot guy that sat across from me to notice me. So I was, shall we say, a little behind the eight-ball coming into the class.
I’m having a blast. Yes, I failed the first online test, but I really am absorbing a lot of information – set theory! the use of logical combinators! – and I expect that I’ll make it through the final exam.
But now let me do something I actually do well, which is analyze the social/business aspect of MOOCs. How could you make money off MOOCs? Here are a few places to start:
1) Sell stuff. Some of Coursera’s offerings come with handy links to buy a textbook related to the class. So some of the usual suspects (Amazon, authors of textbooks) will make money there.
2) Data. I don’t know how Coursera is tracking our data, but with over 50,000 of us signed up for just this one class, that’s a lot of name/email/etc captures, and I’m sure the Stanford smarties can find a way to aggregate and monetize it.
3) Advertise. There are myriad opportunities for advertising in the spaces around the course itself, as well as the communities that are springing up to manage the needs of students in a virtual environment. I’m enjoying the ad-free look that Coursera currently sports, but I’m not expecting it to last.
4) Online domains. I really like StudyRoom, a virtual space where I connect with other students and some TAs (who are volunteers) and ask questions about the assignments. Virtual worlds could help students in many different learning environments, not just MOOCs – the challenge is going to be building the right communities, even when you don’t have 50,000 people enrolled in a course.
So, how are the universities – the content providers – going to make their buck? They’ve got plenty of options. I think the real issue is going to be moving their bureaucracies. Prevailing model: offering education for a carefully selected group of paying customers (students) who want a very exclusive product. New MOOC model: making money from a system that offers education to any customer (student) who wants it, and monetizing the infrastructure that gets built around the system.
MOOCs also have a direct impact on the brands of the universities who choose to offer them, and I’d say it’s 100% positive impact thus far. There’s the social service aspect – offering education to all comers. And the perception that a university taking part in the MOOC experiment has to have some cutting-edge thinkers. Good stuff. It will be interesting to see if Coursera eventually accepts MOOC offering from less-than-august institutions, or if it sticks to A-list schools. If they do, they’ll have competition…if not, they risk devaluing their brand. [NOTE: Since I wrote this blog, Coursera has begun offering some courses from not-A-list schools.]
For my part, I’m loving the experience. I realize I’m a rat running through a higher-ed maze, but it’s a nice maze, and they’re giving me great rewards for pushing the buttons.