I’d be remiss not to mention the latest round of educational techno-fetishist whooping that has accompanied recent announcements from EdX and Coursera. To recap: Berkeley has crashed the Harvard-MIT party at Edx (formerly MITx), a system for providing free online courses. Meanwhile, online education company Coursera has signed up a large number of universities – including the University of Toronto. Coursera and EdX are both providing free, non-credit courses to worldwide audiences; the main difference is that EdX is a university-owned co-op, while Coursera is a massively VC-funded start-up which is providing its platform to a number of carefully chosen, prestigious universities to set up non-credit courses.
These two companies have some big pluses over some of the other online education experiments out there; namely, their courses come entirely from serious, brand-name institutions. That’s a big deal, because brands are almost everything in higher education. No-name start-ups simply aren’t going to be able to compete head-on with established university brands.
The big negative is that there’s still no real business model here. Remember the 100,000 students Sebastian Thrun’s MOOC attracted that got everyone so excited? Turns out almost 85% of them were gawkers – only 13,000 or so actually bothered even opening the final exam. And only about 6,000 actually graduated. That’s still a pretty big number, of course. But is it going to make governments start pushing institutions down the on-line path? Just imagine being the poor schmo writing the Minister’s briefing note explaining why he/she is pushing an education model with a 6% completion rate. Not fun.
To be clear, the lack of a business model doesn’t mean that Coursera and EdX aren’t doing great stuff. Loads of people around the world suddenly have access to great course content, and partner universities are getting some great publicity out of it (“extending their reach” is the preferred phrase, but it amounts to the same thing).
But all of this is for free, non-credit courses. No one knows if there’s any way to monetize this. Presumably, the way this is going to happen is by moving from non-credit to credit courses, to actual degree completion. But this of course is where serious universities – the ones whose names Coursera relies on for volume – draw the line. The only alternative means of monetization seem to rely on sudden, widespread adoption ideas of like Open Badges which seem highly optimistic. As in, Mulcair-mania-comes-to-Calgary optimistic.
If Coursera or EdX can crack the problems of global simultaneous proctoring and invigilation, these businesses have a future. If not, all the educational techno-fetishists will look a lot like Wall Street tech analysts during the Web 1.0 boom.