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.
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.