Greed has ended the promised MOOC revolution


In this post, I will critically reflect on the MOOC phenomenon. I will briefly retell the recent history, discuss their shift towards monetization as well as the cynical behavior that emerged in this context, and conclude with my view on the value proposition of MOOC providers. I will start with my personal background, as it relates to MOOCs.

I have completed over 40 MOOCs within roughly the last three years. My main focus was on computer science and related subjects, but I also took a substantial number of courses in other disciplines. Those courses were a great complement to the software engineering Bachelor’s program I was studying during that time. Initially, I was a great supporter of MOOCs, despite quickly noticing their shortcomings, such as automatic grading and peer reviews. I even readily agreed to be a Community TA for one course at Coursera in early 2014, in order to give something back to the community. These days, though, I would no longer volunteer for any for-profit MOOC provider, after seeing what the major players Coursera, edX, and Udacity have turned into.

A brief history

Stanford offered three university courses online in 2011, including a very popular Artificial Intelligence class by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. The astounding public response was arguably fueled by the prospect of being able to get access to the same materials as Stanford students, sans personal interaction with teachers and teaching assistants, and earn a PDF certificate as proof of your attendance. Online courses had been available for a long time, though. The most prominent provider was MIT with their OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) platform. The downside of it is that if you wanted to recreate the learning experience of an MIT OCW course, you would have to grade your own assignments and exams, which is of course a ludicrous proposition. Thus, as an autodidact, you were hardly better off compared to working through a textbook at your own pace. At least in computer science and mathematics there are a lot of high-quality textbooks available, which often include answers to at least some exercises.

MOOCs seemed to want to improve the lives of autodidacts. Indeed, a very large part of early adopters were people who had already completed college degrees. A lot of the earlier courses were furthermore reasonably rigorous. There were shortcomings with regards to the assignments, since those tended to rely a lot on multiple choice questions, which entails simplifying the assessment. More extensive projects were graded by your peers, which is a far cry from having a teaching assistant provide personal feedback, like it is the case at university. Interactive exercises are great to have, as you get immediate feedback. In short, if you went through a MOOC, you got a pretty decent experience, as long as you took courses that followed textbooks, provided extensive lecture notes, and are in subjects that do not require specialized equipment.

Going sour

In 2012 MOOCs seemed to be too good to be true. Sure, there were hardly perfect. The limitations seemed rather substantial. All drawbacks can be solved, and have been solved. Particularly edX seemed to focus on high-quality courses, aiming to get as close to the class room experience as possible. In some of the courses I took, even course books were made available for free, albeit in a cumbersome interface. If you find an edX course offered by MIT that has a counterpart on MIT OCW, you may find that the content on edX is in no way watered down. I probably should not make a hasty generalization. Thus, I’d like to modify the previous statement to say that the few courses I compared on both platforms seemed more or less equivalent.

I was particularly impressed by some of the innovations of edX. For instance, some MITx courses have the option of providing feedback from an MIT teaching assistant — for a substantial fee, of course. In some of the computer science courses, the assignments are fairly substantial, going beyond what I have seen at Coursera or Udacity. I have not encountered any complex projects, as they would need more guidance than current MOOC interfaces can provide. There are open challenges, like administering group projects, which are a common in CS education. I am not aware of any attempt of replicating this in a MOOC.

Of the three MOOC providers I am most familiar with, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, it seems that only edX is interested in reaching university standards, with the aforementioned limitations, of course. Udacity has been going the trade-school way, offering “nano degrees” in specialized subjects like mobile app development or web development. The Udacity courses I have taken were okay, but I would not at all be interested in paying for them, as they had too many drawbacks, and seemed very much focussed on applying knowledge instead of fundamental understanding.

Coursera has been undergoing a rather dramatic shift. At first, it seemed that they were aiming for academic excellence. I liked their focus on the sciences, and in particular their broad offering in computer science. It was unfortunate that many courses would only run once a year. This problem is currently being resolved, considering that a lot of courses on Coursera have been remodeled into self-paced versions. This was the only positive change I can see on that platform. Otherwise, I am deeply disappointed. While there used to be a fair number of standard-length courses that were clearly based on their campus counterparts, the current situation is much different. There were instances were single courses were broken up into several much shorter ones and repackaged as a “specialization”.

Of course innovation comes with a price tag at Coursera. I will talk about the value proposition of MOOCs a little later. For now, let me only state that Coursera seems to have taken some inspiration from the kind of sites that pop up on your screen if you don’t suppress ads in your web browser. You know, those with long and fancy sales letters and bullet points that reiterate what a great deal their dubious product is. Coursera’s Data Science specialization is currently available for $470, and consists of not one but a staggering ten courses. However, those ten courses do in no way correspond to ten proper university courses. In fact, they used to be one or two longer courses. This reminds me of bloggers who want to sell you a bundle of ebooks, where each “book” contains 20 to 30 pages with just a few dozen words.

Lastly, edX has not been inactive on the monetization front either. While it at first seemed there was a focus on standard-length courses and adding a price tag to them, you nowadays do see quite a few Coursera-style offerings as well, with “XSeries” programs consisting of courses that each are four weeks long. Again, like we have seen it with Coursera, splitting a 10 or 12 week course into three courses seems to have been done with an eye towards profit maximization and possibly the intention to deceive customers. Thus, keep in mind that most if not all course programs do in no way reflect the pacing of a typical university course.

The value proposition

An appealing aspect of MOOCs was that you were rewarded with a PDF certificate that indicated completion of the course. This was hardly comparable to getting a new entry on your university transcript after passing a proctored exam at a brick-and-mortar institution. Still, it provides some evidence that you have studied the course materials. Cheating happens at universities, too, after all.

I never saw any value in paying for a “verified” certificate. Apparently, this sentiment was shared by a high enough number of other MOOC users. Apart from the dubious value proposition, it was also an aesthetic one, as I considered the design of the non-free certificates at both Udacity and edX, with their tacky ribbons and huge logos, far less aesthetically pleasing than the much simpler free certificates. Demand for verified certificates apparently wasn’t what it should have been, considering that the free alternative was infinitely better value for money. Thus, the three major MOOC providers no longer offer free certificates. Udacity was the first entity that did so, in early 2014, because they wanted to “maximize the learning outcome for our students“. Their first instructor, Dave Evans, whose gave the Introduction to CS class, disagreed with that decision, for a while, apparently issued certificates himself, until Udacity told him to stop. Coursera followed suit in October 2015, but everything is fine because they “remain fully committed to [their] financial aid program“. Apparently, just stopping issuing free certificates did not have the desired effect on autodidacts, so nowadays you cannot even access assignments without paying their “small fee”. This makes their computer science courses now useless for anybody who does not want to part with his money. In December, edX apparently did not want to feel left out, so they had to “ensure that edX certificates carry the merit our learners deserve“, and axed the free honor certificates, which were previously praised as a great motivation on their homepage. Why can’t they all just openly say that they want to improve their bottom line, maybe not in those words, instead of making such bullshit statements?

Now that you have to pay if you want a certificate, one has to ask what the value proposition of MOOCs is. It is of course very cynical that the big providers still claim they offer “free” education, when, particularly in the case of Coursera, the freely available content is heavily restricted. Improving the value proposition by eliminating the free option, and still claiming that you offer “free” education is quite something, though. Further, edX amuses me by asking for donations and pestering me to pay for certificates. At brick-and-mortar universities they at least let you graduate before you get calls, emails, and letters from their fundraising office.

From my perspective, as a European who is used to high quality education for a very low cost or entirely for free, the suggestion of paying for a lesser product is dubious at best. Also, I don’t look particularly favorably at the deceptions by Coursera and edX who split up regular courses into several smaller ones, which primarily serves to mislead the customer. Sock puppets would of course respond that caveat emptor applies. Scammers use the same defense. So, let’s do some basic math! As of today, I have completed 43 MOOCs. Some of those courses have been, in the meantime, split into several smaller ones. So, let’s say my 43 courses are equivalent to 50 “courses” as they are currently offered. Those courses are by no means equivalent to a college degree, but I would not be surprised if you could get a BA in an information technology degree at a second-tier university for less effort. Coursera and edX have several price levels, ranging from $49 at the low end, all the way to $99 and $149 offerings for courses. Let’s be generous and set an average price of $89 for a verified certificate. This is about $4,500 in total — for a bunch of PDFs! To put this sum into perspective: for a comparable amount of money you can cover the cost of a high-quality and respected distance-learning degree from the University of London.

In the end, greed won. Of course you can turn this around and call me “greedy” for taking so many MOOCs. Well, here is the kicker: any non-technical “certificate” has very little value to begin with, apart from possibly indicating that you have an interest in a particular subject. Thus, their value is approximately zero. The value of an arts degree from a brand-name university comes primarily from the brand-name of the university, and to a much lesser degree from what they teach you. Further, the value of a technical education, even at a no-name institution, is primarily due to the knowledge you acquire. With a technical degree from a second-rate institution you will have a hard time getting into Wall Street or this year’s hot Internet companies, but you will find employment relatively easily, unlike people with non-technical background who have far worse career prospects. This means that a certificate of a MOOC even for marketable skills is relatively useless since the skill is more important than the certificate.

The fact that the big three MOOC providers abolished free certificates seems to clearly indicate that they were unable to differentiate free and paid-for certificates. Thus, by reducing the options of their users, they hope to increase their revenue. As I wrote before, the marketing and presentation is becoming misleading if not shady, for instance when repackaging one course as many, suggesting greater value than is delivered. The new target customers is far from the old one. No longer are autodidacts an interesting clientele. Instead, the ill-informed are the new target who may salivate at the thought of getting Yale or Harvard credential for a relatively modest price, possibly not realizing that they are going to acquire a useless product.

11 thoughts on “Greed has ended the promised MOOC revolution

  1. Mirza Ibrahimovic

    I think your assessment applies less to Edx than the other two.

    The CEO seems very adamant on increasing the value proposition with university credit, credentials that hold higher standard and are recognized by major institutions (micromasters being recognized by MIT is huge). Their content is still free and largely hold a higher standard than the other two platforms, imo. Don’t see the shadiness in marketing or course-splitting you see at coursera.

    To me it seems like coursera has no long term strategy and just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It probably does not help that they are funded by VCs who presumable want to revenues grow (sooner rather than later).

    It’s still early days, I’m sure they will come to the conclusion like you have and adapt. Either by increasing the value of the credentials or drop the price to the point it makes sense for the customer.

    Good article, enjoyed reading it. Happy new years!

    1. Gregor Ulm Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I consider Coursera’s behavior shady because they pretend they are like a university, just online. A typical university course, though, is longer than four weeks and certainly more rigorous than a Coursera course. Thus, a ten course series on Coursera may easily mislead non-traditional students. They won’t fool someone who already holds a degree, though.

      I do agree that edX is the most respectable entity of the big three MOOC providers. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that they removed the free certificate option, which indicates that the profit motive plays a significant role for them.

  2. Vasilis

    Hi, unfortunately you are right. I have been watching your blog since my firts MOOC (Introduction to Systematic Program Design) where your posts were quite helpful in order to finish it. I have taken a few MOOCs since that, mostly in CS, however I don’t consider myself familiar with Computer Science. MOOCs served my passion for learning (free), so I never paid for any of these. Good post, keep updating it, I enjoy reading it. Greetings from Greece.

  3. Paul Morris

    While edX still allow auditing students to access assessments in another way they are even further down the pay track than Coursera: ‘Professional Development’ courses can only be accessed by paying students. There is no Audit track and you cannot even get to the registration page without paying up-front.

    edX clearly needs to make some contribution towards its running costs–I doubt that the founding institutions would want to continue diverting funds from their own paying students–but they seem to have lost sight of their espoused mission to widen access to education. If they want to go down the route of Professional Development then by all means do so–under another brand. Otherwise the suspicion will arise that ‘free’ courses are simply tempters to draw in paid subscribers.

  4. m

    Dear Greg,
    I am wondering what you think of Georgia Tech’s OMS CS program. An online M.S. designed to be just as rigorous as an on-campus one and that supposedly shows no distinction between online and on-campus, though it is not free. Just much less expensive.

    1. Gregor Ulm Post author

      At one time I considered applying to it, but decided against it. I’ll share my thoughts on this program in a separate blog post soon.

  5. Eljon

    When it comes to free, quality, online education, there still is the MIT OCW, extension.harvard, and the OpenEd consortium. I think these are the place to put these Honor Code Certificates.

    Although I agree, the omission of the ‘original mission’ of edX is a bit dispiriting.

  6. Inna

    I have been a fan of Coursera since a friend recommended it a wile back. What a turn off it was when I tried to sign up for a course and saw a price tag attached. Previously I was happy to pay for some courses and did it happily because I HAD a choice, which now has been taken from me. I feel deceived and greatly disappointed. I will never return to Coursera.

  7. Pingback: Nand2Tetris | rlabuonora74

  8. atopos

    Hi, Gregor. We probably have been classmates in some of those MOOCs. I’ve also taken a lot of them from 2013 till now 😉

    I mostly agree with everything you say. As you, I have been (and still I am) TA in some courses, and, as you, I decided to reject recent invitations for the same reasons you mention.

    I still think that edX is mainly sticking to its initial mission as a non-profit organization. edX recently stopped issuing Honor Code certificates as you point out, but at least every student can access to everything, including graded exercises. This is crucial, much more than the pdf certificate. Udacity and some Coursera courses no longer allow unconditional access. Forcing to pay for grading is the definitive departure from the open education model.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Spammer prevention; the answer is an integer: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.