Making MOOCs Mainstream

By: Chris Marsicano

 

The University of Virginia made headlines this summer when its Board of Visitors attempted to sack its extremely popular president, Teresa Sullivan.  Board members cited a lack of vision among Sullivan and her staff when it came to online education.  While we are still finding out the entire reasoning behind her ouster (and subsequent reinstatement after student protests, faculty demonstrations, and a word or two from the governor), one thing is clear:  Online education is an increasingly important part of many major colleges and universities across the United States.  Ironically, while the board was itching to fire Sullivan, her staff was busy in talks to offer UVa courses online.

What was once the hallmark of proprietary for-profit colleges like DeVry University and the University of Phoenix is now taking hold in the ancient halls of the Ivy League.  Given the relatively poor reputation that proprietary colleges have in the American higher education area, it is quite a surprise that institutions with storied names are going after the online market.  Traditionally when the big gun research universities got involved online, it was to provide free course materials.  MIT and Carnegie Mellon were pioneers with “massive online open courses” or “MOOCs”, creating open courseware with the goal of democratizing higher education – online students did not get a degree, but could still take courses from real MIT professors and learn quite a bit.  The medium took off.  Harvard joined MIT’s online program in 2011 to create edX, and UC- Berkley joined up just last month.  Britain-based Open University and its free LearningSpace is a huge hit among iTunesU – users, and TED Talks, while not affiliated with a specific educational institution, often feature free lectures from top-tier university professors such as Duke’s own Dan Ariely.  But then, Southern New Hampshire University decided to create an online MBA program, and the world changed.

SNHU’s online programs net the school around $75 million in tuition revenue each year.  To put that in perspective, a university’s endowment (the chosen income method of most top tier institutions) would have to be in excess of $2.5 billion to come close to that level of income.  In short, online degree granting programs turned SNHU into a financial powerhouse overnight, and two Stanford professors took notice.

The professors believed that a high-quality online education could be both free and profitable.  They created Coursera, a for-profit entity that uses free MOOCs provided by some of the world’s best universities to make money.  While their business model is a bit unclear, what is easily understood is that well-respected universities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are along for the ride…including the University of Virginia.  Coursera plans to take the “Field of Dreams” approach:  If you build the online course platform, the money will come.  Only time will tell if there is a place for elite, free-yet-profitable-at-the-same-time online courseware. With institutions like Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, and Stanford laying their reputations on the line, it is hard to imagine anything other than success.

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