May 28, 2013

Are MOOCs An Extension of Academic Publishing into Teaching?

Category: Digital Learning
graphic of MOOCs network and extension into teaching and companies

Over the past few months, there has been a growing backlash against MOOCs. If you aren’t familiar with the term, massive open online courses — college courses that (for now) are free and will enroll anyone, generally without any restrictions on the size of a course — have been around in various forms for some time, but the term has gained wider exposure with the very public introduction of the for-profit MOOC startups Udacity and Coursera. These companies have advocated the ability of MOOCs to provide access to education to anyone with an Internet connection. As Coursera puts it:

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

In theory, this sounds great. Yet a growing number of educators and critics have begun expressing concerns about MOOCs. Cathy Davidson has argued that MOOCs simply reaffirm “sage-on-the-stage” teaching practices and “are not about interactive new peer-learning pedagogies.” Some of this criticism has focused particularly on the connection of MOOCs to for-profit companies whose business models remain subjects of speculation. Media theorist Richard Grusin has posted a list of these concerns (for a more in-depth view of the economic implications of MOOCs, see this long post by Bob Meister), many of which revolve around the potential for MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity to make their money as other social media companies do: by capitalizing on user data.

I am also concerned about the role of money in MOOCs (so are others: in response to the launch of for-profits like Udacity and Coursera, a consortium of universities led by MIT created edX, a not-for-profit MOOC platform). Specifically, I’m concerned that their business model will replicate that of the academic publishing industry.

While there has been a growing number of open access journals in academic fields and encouraging trends in open publication, academic publishing traditionally works in this way: a researcher is paid by a (frequently public) university to create research. The researcher then publishes this research as an article in a academic journal, some of which charge the researcher for this privilege, a bill which some universities help to pay. If that journal is published by a for-profit publisher, the article — bundled together with others — is then sold back to the university library for the university community to access. To recap: the university pays a researcher to produce research, then, after that research is given away to a for-profit publisher for free, buys that research back from the publisher. This seems like a silly practice for universities to subsidize, but it is good business for the publishers, who make profits in the range of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

My concern with for-profit MOOCs is that they will adopt a similar plan. Universities will pay their teachers to develop and teach courses — sometimes paying them extra to turn those courses into MOOCs — and that labor will be given freely, or at a reduced cost, to MOOC for-profits who will, in turn, sell it back to the university or sell it directly to college students.

I think there will be a role for MOOCs (or something like) in higher education. However, I don’t want that role to be what Grusin called the “neoliberalization of higher education,” defined in part by creating public resources — like teaching at public universities — and handing them to private companies to monetize. However, I fear that if, as Jeff Rice argues, we do not offer alternatives to MOOCs (as Cathy Davidson has) this may be what we get.

Update, 5/30/2013: My employer, West Virginia University—along with nine other universities or university systems—just announced a partnership with Coursera to develop MOOCs and offer them to students.

According to the press release, WVU will initially offer Coursera courses for free and without credit. However, the Chronicle of Higher Educations has published more details about the contracts involved, which it reports are “pretty much identical.” Here is the relevant bit about what Coursera will be charging universities.

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Apparently, these deals are structured to incentivize universities to make these courses more “massive”: as the university adds more students, its cost will go down, but tuition charges to those students will stay the same.

It also appears that this structure largely mirrors the one I have described above: universities will pay their employees to create courses, give those courses to Coursera, and then Coursera will, in turn, charge the university for the privilege of allowing it to offer those courses—for which the university has shouldered the costs—to their students. The only difference from academic publishing seems to be that the university keeps some of the revenue, in this case the extra tuition money it charges students.

Banner image credit: detail from