04 October 2012

Monetising MOOCs

I've just had an email from the organiser of a free online course that I took (but I never watched or read any of the materials at all).  It was borderline spam: it was an advert for the book he was about to launch.

Is that the future of the MOOC, then?  Someone using it simply to get a mailing list for his next publication?  If it is, I' not sure how I feel about that.  I'm not convinced that a marketing campaign is the correct motivation for someone to write a coherent and (crucially) academically rigorous higher education course.

The warnings were there earlier, though.  Coursera (before they were so-named) were at once point advertising an entrepreneurship course called Lean LaunchPad, but these guys eventually jumped ship and climbed aboard with Thrun's Udacity... presumably for commercial reasons.  Yes, the course started out as Stanford course, but the name strikes me as more than a little...trademarky.  Isn't real higher education supposed to be generic?  Aren't we supposed to present a moderately broad and balanced view of the whole area of study, and not hone in one one specific methodology to the exclusion of all others?

To me, that looks like education taking one more step towards being a simple packager of vendor-specific training courses.  It's cheap, but efficiency isn't much good when you sacrifice education in the process.

So what can we do?

Muvaffak commented on my earlier post, saying that courses need to be self-financing, but the big question is how to do that without affecting openness.  No, $10 isn't much to me, but there are places where it is a hell of a lot.  Simple fees aren't practical.

The solution normally kicked about is "something or other... certification".  No, not very specific.  The idea is usually the that course -- the "education" -- is free, but testing (and therefore certification) will be paid for.  But that threatens to bring us back into an inequitable state, because we're still establishing a two-tier system.  Rich people in rich countries get certified, poor people in poor countries don't.

So there is still the very real issue of openness at the commercial level.  The internet makes the obvious answer difficult to see, or possibly just difficult to swallow: different prices in different places.  If A Book On C isn't affordable in India at the US and European retail price, print it locally cheaper.  But every couple of years, someone in the US makes a big thing about being "ripped off" by US prices, or someone gets taken to court for importing unlicensed copies of books.

So while people rave about the potential for free education to improve the lot of the poor, as soon as you start talking about offering them the same thing at a different price, you're no longer seen as helping the poor, you're now ripping off the pretty well-off (even if you're miles cheaper than the alternative).

Realistically, I'd say the fair and equitable way to fund MOOCs is through proctored exams with differential pricing.  Institutions in various countries act as agents for the exam, and pay commission to the course writers.  Make that commission a percentage, and the local market will determine local pricing.

No major exams at the moment really have this local pricing though -- the biggest example of inequity would have to be a certain internationally recognised English exam, which is several hundred pounds wherever you sit it.  A reasonable chunk of cash for a European student, but a heck of a lot of money for someone from South America.  The reason?  They papers all go back to a rich country, where they're marked by people who demand pretty high wages (in global terms).

In order to allow differential pricing, then, we're going to have to allow the distribution of marking duties.  The institutions taking the students' fees are going to have to be hiring their own markers.


Having a competitive market for examination centres is very dangerous -- just see how the multiple exam boards for England and Wales became mired in controversy a few years back, with claims that one group of trainers were giving teachers advance warning of exam questions.  Certain "bad apples" were effectively trying to get the pass mark up in order to make the exams more appealing to schools.

So the marking load has to be split, but you can't be marked by your own institution (so no way for them to game the system).

So what are you left with?

Well, say I sit the exam in Rome; I should now have no idea where my exam will be marked.  Say it ends up in Ouagadougou.  And a paper from Jean in Ouagadougou ends up in London.  So I've paid much more money than Jean.  But Jean's marker gets paid more than Jean paid for the entire exam, and my marker gets paid a tiny fraction of what I paid.

While the system would be entirely equitable -- we all get out the same, and we put pretty much equivalent amounts into the system -- it looks unfair, because people just aren't used to a barter economy.

So the most workable solution for funding these things will never happen.

So from now on, I'd expect to see more and more tie-ins to books and proprietary methodologies, because the only guys who'll be able to afford to do this are the people with something to sell.....

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