As MOOCs Move Mainstream Universities Must Pay to Play

Like it or not, virtually every university is now considering whether to get serious about MOOCs and I can say from firsthand experience the cost of admission is higher than you might think.
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In less than a year MOOCs have gone from a geeky idea known mainly to a few professors at Stanford and a group of TED talk addicts to the center piece of a bank commercial appearing on network television. Like it or not, virtually every university is now considering whether to get serious about MOOCs and I can say from firsthand experience the cost of admission is higher than you might think.

Even a year ago, MOOCs could be viewed as an experiment and schools could safely experiment while flying under the radar. Professors would set up shop in their home office, record a "trailer" describing their course, post it on a MOOC platform and wake up the next morning with tens of thousands of students. If signing up students was that easy it was natural to conclude that teaching them wouldn't be much harder. Crank up your MacBook Air, record six lectures, hire a few grad students as moderators and "let her rip." And rip, both figuratively and sometimes literally, is exactly what many of these early efforts did.

If my recent experience is any indication, the bar to entry for MOOCs has gone up and I can't imagine it coming back down. My collaborator Holden Thorp and I naively thought the videos created from our in-person introductory entrepreneurship class could be edited and easily turned into a MOOC. A young colleague we enlisted to help us give a little sizzle to our existing content quickly disabused us of the notion that we could use any of our existing footage. To make the most of the MOOC format, our classroom lectures had to be rewritten into a set of modules that succinctly conveyed the subject matter in a format suited for life-long learners from all over the world.

That investment of time was just the start. We never imagined that our MOOC would require a team of more than 13 core members including a producer, a writer, a videographer, an animator, a cameraman, a teleprompter operator, two research assistants, a librarian, and an attorney (to resolve certain copyright issues). On January 21 when "What's Your Big Idea?" launches on Coursera we will add a number of teaching assistants to the team. Although much of this resource has been "donated" or otherwise manufactured from different corners of UNC and Washington University, we estimate the fully loaded cost to produce our MOOC to be $150,000. When an allocation for the infrastructure constructed by Coursera to host the course is considered, the cost is even higher. Although there will be some great MOOCs produced for much less money and a few done on a shoestring will go viral and far exceed the number of students who sign up for our course, the cost of our MOOC is a reasonable starting place when considering what it will take to produce a MOOC of reasonable quality.

It is our hope that all of the time and money we have invested will produce a product that will have broad appeal and that a substantial number of students will start and even finish the course. However we have no expectation that our MOOC will generate even a dollar of revenue for those who funded it. Obviously, that model is not sustainable and will have to be addressed if MOOCs are to be more than an interesting experiment. Where the revenue will come from is still unclear.

We already have some ideas about how that might change in the future, but they are not tempered by any real experience. That is about to change. The signup page for the MOOC, which has been up for just over a week, has already prompted ideas about collaboration where our six modules would form the basis for multiple on-campus experiences. Eventually, such collaborations might generate revenue. There are other ways we expect our MOOC to add value. Parts of the video content will be employed in multiple classes and workshops on the UNC campus enhancing the learning experience of our students and perhaps reducing costs once we perfect our online collaboration tools. If the course is well received and achieves its objectives, we suspect that other opportunities will reveal themselves as well. For now, our goal is to produce a course we can feel good about and begin learning where we go from here.

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