The growing mania (bubble?) for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) continues. Just a few months ago we looked at this trend in its “early days” (MOOCS: My Oppressive and Obligatory Classroom Servitude and in “MIT to Offer Free Online Training Leading to Certificates“). The search for a profitable business model is now entering another gear. In “The attack of the MOOCs,” The Economist wrote:
Dotcom mania was slow in coming to higher education, but now it has the venerable industry firmly in its grip. Since the launch early last year of Udacity and Coursera, two Silicon Valley start-ups offering free education through MOOCs, massive open online courses, the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations. University brands built in some cases over centuries have been forced to contemplate the possibility that information technology will rapidly make their existing business model obsolete. Meanwhile, the MOOCs have multiplied in number, resources and student recruitment—without yet having figured out a business model of their own.
Besides providing online courses to their own (generally fee-paying) students, universities have felt obliged to join the MOOC revolution to avoid being guillotined by it. Coursera has formed partnerships with 83 universities and colleges around the world, including many of America’s top-tier institutions.
EdX, a non-profit MOOC provider founded in May 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and backed with $60m of their money, is now a consortium of 28 institutions, the most recent joiner being the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Led by the Open University, which pioneered distance-learning in the 1970s, FutureLearn, a consortium of 21 British, one Irish and one Australian university, plus other educational bodies, will start offering MOOCs later this year. But Oxford and Cambridge remain aloof, refusing to join what a senior Oxford figure fears may be a “lemming-like rush” into MOOCs.
On July 10th Coursera said it had raised another $43m in venture capital, on top of the $22m it banked last year. Although its enrolments have soared, and now exceed 4m students, this is a huge leap of faith by investors that the firm can develop a viable business model. The new money should allow Coursera to build on any advantage it has from being a first mover among a rapidly growing number of MOOC providers. “It is somewhat entertaining to watch the number of people jumping on board,” says Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera. She expects it to become one of a “very small number of dominant players”.
Besides the uncertainty over which business model, if any, will produce profits, there is disagreement over how big the market will be. Some see a zero- or negative-sum game, in which cheap online providers radically reduce the cost of higher education and drive many traditional institutions to the wall. Others believe this effect will be dwarfed by the dramatic increase in access to higher education that the MOOCs will bring.
Mr Feerick predicts that the market will be commoditised, spelling trouble for many institutions. But Anant Agarwal, the boss of EdX, reckons the MOOC providers will be more like online airline-booking services, expanding the market by improving the customer experience. Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder, thinks the effect will be similar in magnitude to what the creation of cinema did to demand for staged fiction: he predicts a tenfold increase in the market for higher education.