When Sebastian Thrun, former champion of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, turned his back on the online courses last year, it revealed a major opening in the previously impenetrable armour of MOOC hype. The founder of one of the big three platforms Udacity, who previously announced that MOOCs were going to be such a force for change in higher education that only 10 universities would remain standing by 2050, admitted that the data he’d seen didn’t support his aspirations.
Less than 10% of Udacity students were completing courses – a figure at odds with Thrun’s dreams to educate the world. In an unforeseen twist, Thrun described Udacity as a “lousy product” for failing to retain a higher percentage of students, and shifted focus from MOOCs into paid-for corporate training. He even went as far as to say he never liked the term MOOC in the first place.
Thrun’s turn highlights two major issues. Number one, MOOCs may not yet be done cooking, and further work needs to be done to create a product that not only educates a student but engages them as well, and keeps them hooked for the long run. Secondly, the for-profit model for MOOCs may not be the right approach to take.
To deconstruct the latter point, the overarching objectives of MOOCs must be established. From Thrun’s own talks on the matter, and those of other educators involved in the online courses, the conclusive evidence points towards raising the global level of education as the ultimate goal. This, like many other noble endeavours, does not sit well alongside the idea of turning a profit. For example, when the National Health Service (NHS) was first pitched to the British public, it was not sold as a way to get rich, but as a financial burden that must be endured for the social good and ultimate growth of the nation.
Free education sits alongside the ideals of the NHS. Making money from education should not be seen as the end game and, as rising university tuition costs both sides of the Atlantic underline, in fact creates a barrier to it. Instead, it is what education creates that can be monetised: a smarter and better skilled population, fresh businesses, and the research coming out from universities which this publication reports on.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seem to understand this point. It is why edX, the not-for-profit MOOC platform born out of collaboration between the two, stands out from its for-profit peers such as Stanford startup Coursera and the Open University’s FutureLearn.
Due to its non-profit stance, funding for edX is more flexible than others. Both MIT and Harvard contributed $30m each for its launch, with subsequent partners contributing $10m to $20m each (edX now has 29 partner institutions – including Harvard and MIT), giving the platform substantially more breathing room than Coursera’s $63m in venture backing. It’s also cash which isn’t under pressure to perform, with edX only needing to meet its running costs in order to stay on a stable footing.
To this end, edX still has a few options. EdX charges an up-front fee of $50,000 ($10,000 for re-run courses) for a partner institution to host a course, and has a secondary model where it is a consultant and design partner where the platform charges $250,000, plus $50,000 for re-runs, with the potential for universities to switch between the two models as they see fit. EdX, like its peers, offers students the opportunity at the end of the course to receive certification, which can run between $25 and $100 dependent on the level of the course, with universities receiving 70% of the profit. Conversely, Coursera offers 6-15% of gross revenue, but does not charge the upfront fee.
Another major advantage edX has due to its non-profit stance is that it can make its platform open-source and able to be replicated by other institutions. While Coursera runs around forging alliances, edX can simply walk in and offer the tools to create their own platforms, and charge a licensing fee for any edX content the new platforms wish to use. This has proved a big hit already. XuetangX, a Chinese language MOOC provider based on the edX platform, went from announcement to being online within a week. The French platform Université Numérique tells a similar story. Announced in October and taking applicants from November, the French language version of edX will begin offering courses this month.
Compare that to FutureLearn’s development time, which went from announcement to launch in nine months and still remains in beta, and the choice for universities between replicating edX’s platform for free and building their own from scratch seems like a pretty straight forward decision. In the case of FutureLearn, the UK’s top four ranked universities, Oxford, University College London, Imperial College London, and Cambridge, still have not affiliated with the platform. Should they decide to start offering online courses, as Oxford has attempted to do in the past and Cambridge has hinted they’d be interested in doing, opting to host their own MOOC platform using edX technology could seriously undermine FutureLearn’s efforts.
The open source platform has also attracted the attention of internet giant Google in a partnership which could potentially floor all the for-profit competition outright. The two are working on Mooc.org, billed as the YouTube of online education, due to launch in the first half of this year. Anyone will be able to offer courses through the edX-fuelled platform, which means universities, individuals, training bodies, and corporations will all be able to get in on the MOOC action. All being said, Mooc.org has the potential to be a bigger platform than any of the currently existing MOOC providers.
Through financial flexibility, its open-source model, the partnership with Google, and the adherence to providing free education over creating profit, edX has created a more concrete position for itself than its peers. It isn’t under pressure to prove its value like Coursera, in no need to catch up like FutureLearn, and, through a network of edX clones and MOOC.org, has the potential to eventually have greater reach and depth in content than any of its competitors.
Simply put, edX has put the ideal of providing free-to-access courses and tuition above all else, and looks to have the longevity and ability to sustain that focus. If only edX came up with a better term for MOOCs than MOOC, Thrun may yet live to see his dream of educating the world realised.