Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inside the Coursera contract

I've been interested in the various new "online university" projects that are underway: Udacity, Coursera, EdX, etc.

This month, the Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article that looks inside the contract that Coursera is signing with its member universities: Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses.

The article claims that the efforts are still working to build their programs, and their audiences, and are not yet trying to address the "should we try to make a profit" question that is hanging over every effort like a giant storm cloud:

Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups: Build fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists—and even two universities—have invested more than $22-million in the effort already. "Our VC's keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow," says Daphne Koller, the company's other co-founder, who is also a professor at Stanford.

But the article explores a number of the possible ways that these programs might make money, or at least might earn enough money to defray their costs:

Coursera's leaders say they are actively pursuing only two of the moneymaking ideas on the list: charging students who pass the courses a small fee for a certificate, and serving as a matchmaker between students looking for jobs and companies seeking qualified employees.

Ah yes, employment: everyone wants to cash in on LinkedIn's success.

Other ideas cited by the article include:

  • Selling Courses to Community Colleges.
  • Charging Tuition.
  • Offering "Secure Assessments."

At least up to this point, the article suggests, these new programs are mostly about money:

When and if money does come in, the universities will get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course (and thus how long Coursera has to profit from it). The institutions will also get 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid. That means the company gets the vast majority of the cash flow.

The article ends up concluding that the academic institutions are motivated mostly by fear, not by greed:

College officials, for their part, seem more motivated by fear than by the promise of riches. "Most of us are thinking this could be a loss of revenue source if we don't learn how to do it well," says Mr. Rodriguez, of the University of Virginia. "These are high-quality potential substitutes for some of what universities do."

It's a sad thing that efforts such as these, with such potential to bring unbelievable opportunities, benefits, and knowledge to the world, are apparently mired in an oscillation between fear and greed instead.

From what little I have seen so far, the potential is tremendous: the content is strong, the presentation tools work well, and the interest is there. Let's hope that wise minds prevail and these efforts work to provide a greater good for humanity, not simply a gusher of money for some well-heeled investors.

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