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Monetizing MOOCs – When Is it Right to Switch to Self-Serving Classes?

Monetizing MOOCs – When Is it Right to Switch to Self-Serving Classes?


MOOC-monetizingBy Dr. Patricia Campbell
Dean, Graduate Studies at American Public University

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion around whether MOOCs can become sustainable or even profitable. This post doesn’t set out to answer that specific question, but rather it explores why someone might want to pay for a MOOC. What can a student expect of a MOOC and is it really worth the time and/or money?

For starters, we know there are many free MOOCs out there. They constitute a risk free environment where people can explore a plethora of topics. One thing we know about MOOCs is that they tend to have very high dropout rates. This is probably to be expected. Someone can sign up for a MOOC with the best intention of completing it–especially if the topic is compelling. However with no monetary “skin in the game,” there is very little downside of not completing the course.

Coursera’s approach to handling the high dropout rates for MOOCs is to encourage applicants to commit to completing the courses. Specifically, when you sign up for a course, you get an email asking if you intend to complete it and are asked to complete a survey that outlines how you might overcome obstacles that would prevent you from completing the course. Introducing this intentionality component has increased the retention rate in some MOOCs, but the rate remains dismally low.

Enter the pay per MOOC model. The idea behind this model is that forcing students to have some monetary investment will lead to more completions. While this may be true, initially at least, the modern gym industry is an excellent example of why paying money for a service does always translate into usage. In other words, other forms of motivation, beyond money, are likely needed for MOOCs to increase their retention rates.

This pay model also wades into an area that has traditional academe very nervous. Specifically, students are asking, “If I pay for a course, shouldn’t it count for something?” One of the concerns I heard expressed at recent meeting of graduate school deans was what would happen if institutions started accepting MOOCs for academic credit? The collective gasp at the thought was almost universal. However, if students put in the time, read the course materials, listen to the lectures, engage in the exercises, and successfully complete the assessments, why not award them with academic credit?

If we award academic credit for this educational experience, then doesn’t charging a fee make sense? In this scenario, we now we have two motivating factors for students to complete a MOOC: they have “skin in the game” and can achieve credit hours toward a degree. What could go wrong?

It turns out that even this isn’t enough to retain students. We have examples of failed attempts at offering free MOOCs with the option of paying for an assessment for college credit at San Jose State and Colorado State. Even MOOCs that charge a nominal fee continue to see high withdrawal rates.

What does this mean for the average person considering a MOOC? Taking a free MOOC can be an easy decision since it is low risk, but deciding to pay for one should lead the potential student to define or more expected outcomes.

Personal growth? Insofar as completing a MOOC is related to professional development, there may be value if the participant can demonstrate successful completion of related courses. Many MOOCs offer badges for this very purpose.

Academic credentials? So far, not many universities will accept transfer credit for a MOOC. We should expect the number of universities that accept MOOC credits to increase. This is likely as more universities see value in online teaching and learning and as more professors and administrators both take and teach MOOCs.

Likewise, the development of technology that can ensure the identity of the person receiving credit for the MOOC will also help legitimize the practice of granting academic credit for MOOCs. Universities such as Georgia Tech, with its MOOC-based master’s in IT, will also help legitimize MOOCs. Lastly, as universities move toward accepting competency based credit, instead of relying solely on traditional seat time credit, we will continue to see a more thoughtful approach to student learning and how we can assess students’ demonstrations of subject proficiencies.

Clearly there are many considerations one must take into account before enrolling in a MOOC, especially one that requires registration or assessment fees. The bottom line is: do your research. If you can take MOOCs for nominal fees and have that credit successfully transfer into a university toward your degree completion, this may be one way to save some money while simultaneously achieving your goal of degree attainment. But know that with any online-based program, success will be in your hands. (Get tips for preparing yourself for online education.)

About the Author

Dr. Campbell has numerous publications in academic journals including Journal of Political Science Education, International Feminist Journal of Politics, African Studies Quarterly, Politics and Policy; and Africa Today. Her co-authored textbook on Global Studies was published in 2010 (Wiley-Blackwell). She has been active serving on various committees of the American Political Science Association (APSA), most recently she was elected to the APSA’s Committee on Teaching and Learning.



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