The Transition of MOOC Providers, and its Impact

The Education Sector has been the focus of many internet-based companies ever since internet became accessible to most people in various parts of the world. The first most prominent attempt towards revolutionizing the sector through web based services was (and still is) Khan Academy, which provides video based content corresponding to school-level learning, as well as some extras for standardized tests. The most recent names maintaining their foothold in the ever-growing, opportunistic environment are edX and Coursera, and both have been doing an excellent job in allowing people to not only continue their study into subjects both related and not related to their major field of interest, but also gain credits from universities as a part of continuing education.

When these providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) came into existence, they were mostly funded by universities and other independent organisations, so that they would soon attain profitability and establish business, earning profits not only for their own purposes but also as an additional income to the universities responsible for hosting their online courses on these websites.

But it has taken rather long. Initially, interfaces were cluttered, video quality was unimpressive, material produced by universities was quite uninteresting and taught in a poor manner as well. Though there were some good courses among the lot, MOOCs still had a long way to go.

edX and Coursera began providing free certificates/statements of accomplishment as a token of participation in a course. This seemed to attract a lot of people, though not a considerable number, to earn a recognition while enjoying the comfort of their homes.

Since then, the quality of material has improved remarkably, and the biggest (and the best) example of this improvement is Harvard’s CS50x, provided through edX. If someone has checked out the course, they would find that the course essentially contains video recordings of lectures taught in actuality at Harvard University (and now Yale as well) during fall semester, along with a nice interface set up for online students to submit their assignments and experience a near-class environment through sections and walkthroughs for several problems. Although other MOOCs haven’t exactly replicated the methodology, more because CS50 as a course is heavily promoted and commercialized at Harvard, yet the subtle changes made by universities in the production and development of their MOOCs have been visible and welcomed, resulting in an increased number of candidates for a particular course.

2015 has seen more noticeable changes in providers, and most of them have stopped providing free certificates to students. This move has not been accepted by the student community in a positive manner, since in order to obtain a certificate at the completion of the course, you now have to pay an amount which is not proportionate to the currency values for various countries.

edX traditionally asks for $49 to add a certificate to the course (some courses may have higher costs as well), while Coursera asks for $29 to $49 for the same.

While these costs may appear to be insignificant, they are quite high by international standards. If you have a user base where some students belong to developing countries and other to developed countries, a single fixed cost for all countries cannot ascertain the ease of paying by all. People who have been paying these costs before providers stopped giving out free certificates may not be affected much, but this move to achieve profitability by scrapping the only means of recognition people could get through a website may lead to a slower growth of MOOCs than expected.

One of the biggest disadvantages of MOOCs till date has been their credibility. MOOCs are often not representative of the efforts put in by those who took them in the past, and thus hold little value as far as industries and professions are concerned, even with a certificate that has been paid for by the student. Paying for MOOC does not provide any added benefit to the student in comparison to those who didn’t pay for it, and most people end up pursuing the free certificate just because of that reason.

While it is understandable that MOOC providers would want to implement a business model in the education sector sooner or later, they certainly need to keep in mind the needs and the affordability of their customers.


Originally published at The Philosophical Nerd on December 23, 2015.

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