30 January 2015

The slow death of the MOOC continues

This morning, I checked my email like I always do, and Coursera were plugging their latest "specialization" -- one for so-called cloud computing.

Coursera specialisations were originally launched as a single certificate for a series of "signature track" (ie "paid for") courses, but there's always the free option alongside it.

So I was very surprised when I clicked on the link for more information about the specialisation, then clicked through to the course, and it was only offering the $49 paid-for version. Now I did go back later and track down the free version of the course by searching the course catalogue, but the notable thing was that you can't get to the free version by navigating from the information about the specialisation.

It's there -- it is -- but by making click-through impossible, they're actively trying to push people into the paid versions. This suggests that the business model isn't working, and it's not really much of a surprise -- there's no such thing as a free lunch, and the only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

Some of the universities seemed to be using the free courses as an advert for there accredited courses, but it's a very large and expensive way to advertise -- teaching thousands in order to get half-a-dozen extra seats filled on your masters programme -- and so really the only way to get money is to get more of the students to pay.

Is it worth it for the student?

Cloud Computing costs £150, and going by their time estimates, that's between 120 and 190 hours of work. The academic credit system here in Scotland says that ten hours of work is one "credit point", and there are 120 credits in a year. Timewise, the Cloud Computing specialisation is then roughly equivalent to a 15-point or 20-point course -- ie. a single "module" in a degree course. A 15-point module costs £227.50, and a 20-point module costs just over £300, so £150 for this seems like a pretty good deal. Of course, this is only the cost to students resident in Scotland to begin with, and it is controlled by law to stay artificially low -- in England, the basic rate would be £750 for a 15-point course or £1000 for a 20-point one, but many universities "top-up" their fees by half again: £1125 and £1500 respectively. And English universities are still cheaper than many of their American counterparts.

So the Coursera specialization could be half the price of a university equivalent, or a tenth, or even less, depending on where you live. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Sadly, though, the certificates are worthless -- almost all the institutions offering courses through Coursera (and EdX, and FutureLearn) are allowed to accredit their own courses for university credit, but they choose not to. If they accredited a £30 course as university-level study, they'd be competing against themselves, and they'd kill the market for their established distance courses, and perhaps even their on-campus courses.
If they can run a course for £150, is there any justification for their usual high prices? Well... yes. Coursera is on a freemium model (free for basic use, pay for "premium" services), but in reality everything on Coursera is still the "free" part of the freemium. The online-only courses are not viable for universities for a number of reasons, so it's the fully-accredited courses run by the universities themselves that make it possible for the universities to offer the cheap courses "on the side", using repurposed versions of their existing course materials.

Technology and knowledge sharing can and should be used to reduce the cost of education. When I studied languages with the Open University, I looked at the cost of the course I was taking, vs equivalent unaccredited alternatives -- I could have bought equivalent books and spent more time with a one-on-one teacher than I did in group tutorials, and still only spent half of the money I did with the OU. If I hadn't wanted to get the degree, it would have made no sense at all to continue with them, but I want to teach in schools, so I need the degree.

So yes, there is undoubtedly unnecessary expense in education and there's a lot of "fat" that could be trimmed away, but the Coursera model won't do it, and for now it remains something of a distraction -- a shiny object that draws our attention away from the real problems and solutions.

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