The end of free MOOCs?

Have you ever tried a MOOC?  I have tried out about three, all on quite interesting topics. I really enjoyed the fact that it was free and I had access to the content even after the course ended, as to be honest I struggled to keep up with the pace of the lessons on top of all my other commitments. Each MOOC was relatively face-paced, requiring a high level of engagement every week for up to 6 weeks. There were a multitude of videos, readings, activities and interactions required in each weeks lesson plan, and by the middle of the MOOCs I had just about run out of the effort needed. I found a lot of repetition and lacked the time to sift through the information – did the video make the same points as these pages of writing underneath? A lot of the time it did. Some MOOCs have been better than others, and it really comes down to the amount of spare time you have, and your level of interest in the topic. You only get out as much as you can put in.

A great way to enable yourself to really engage with a MOOC would be to apply for it to count towards professional learning at your workplace, depending on its content, so that you have more incentive and time to really get involved. It has been documented that there is a high drop off rate for users of MOOCs and few participants complete the full course (of the 15000 enrolled, only 2000 completed the last MOOC I did), so make sure you are willing to spend the allocated time each week. It may even be worth paying for the certificate available at the end of the course for proof of completion.

However, Coursera (a large MOOC provider) has recently announced they will be charging users up front for certain courses. According to an article from ‘Inside Higher Ed’, this is diverging from Coursera’s mission to “provide universal access to the world’s best education.” Critics are saying this tweaking of the business model means “MOOCs are becoming less open and less like courses”. It is an interesting discussion and the article is well worth a read. The move to paid courses has been coined ‘inevitable’ and I can see why. Almost every free online service I can think of has slowly instigated some form of payment or advertising to maintain itself in the business world – investors need profits, that’s just how things seem to work.

But I wonder how this change will affect the company and its users. I know I would be much less inclined to take part in MOOCs if they were expensive, and would seek out an alternative and more highly regarded course if I really wanted/needed the extra knowledge and qualification. While some courses will remain free, the article questions how this experience will differ from those who pay for a course. This raises serious concerns about equity, according to the article, and I heartily agree. If those who are unable to pay are getting a a second rate education, then these MOOC providers have really ceased to be fulfilling their core mission. Coursera has stated they have a financial aid program covering the cost of the MOOCs, however these are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and it is unclear on how these decisions are made and whether this is a fair process.

There are still MOOC companies who are providing free MOOCs and it will be interesting to follow the evolution of these programs, as the money making business is one that is hard to avoid when something becomes popular. Still, it may be worth trying some out now before you’re asked for a credit card.

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