Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been a topic of increasingly frantic conversation in higher-education circles over the past year. These courses are open and free to the public and have typically focused on subjects in computer technology and other applied sciences. I wrote a piece for the Scholarly Kitchen a year ago about Udacity, one of the more prominent developers of MOOCs.
At the same time that MOOCs have attracted attention and enthusiasm in the media, others have scoffed at the MOOC juggernaut and at any suggestion that the MOOC concept poses a serious threat to the traditional higher education system. Who cares about free courses if the courses don’t provide formal academic credit? Skeptics also point to the massive dropout rate in these courses, and wonder aloud how any company could possibly turn free online education into an economically sustainable operation.
Answers to those questions are starting to come in. This past September, I followed up my original posting about Udacity with another when it was announced that Colorado State University would begin offering academic credit for successful completion of one of Udacity’s courses.
This week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education brings another such announcement — the California State University system is embarking on a larger-scale pilot project in cooperation with Udacity. According to the report, San Jose State University will jointly develop three introductory math classes which will be freely available to the public and aimed primarily at high-school and community college students. Those who wish to take them for SJSU credit will pay $150 (instead of the $450 to $750 that is typically charged for a course at the university). In order to promote better follow-through and fewer dropouts, Udacity will hire student mentors to provide tutoring and other support. SJSU professors who develop courses for the program will be paid $15,000 each, and will retain copyright in their course materials.
One noteworthy detail is mentioned in passing:
If the project continues beyond the pilot, the university will keep 51 percent of any revenue after costs are covered and Udacity will keep 49 percent, said Mohammad Qayoumi, president of the university, in an interview on Monday.
This suggests one way that a MOOC might become financially sustainable: be offered at no charge to the general public, but at a cost to those who wish to use it as a substitute for a traditional college course. The functionally infinite scalability of the MOOC makes a very low price sustainable, at least in theory.
Theoretically, MOOCs could still turn out to be a flash in the pan — just another Second Life. But as announcements like this one continue to pile up, that scenario becomes less and less likely, and the MOOC’s potential as a disruptor of traditional higher education grows.