The Cost of MOOCs

Lost in all the excitement about Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] is the cost of development, maintenance, and teaching the online courses.

A number of universities and colleges have already partnered with edX, Coursera, and other MOOC provider companies. Many people seem to assume that MOOCs provided by these institutions will be free and that they will necessarily save students money on tuition and fees. But, these universities and colleges are investing enormous financial resources in the MOOC provider companies.


An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that “Offering MOOCs through edX is hardly free. There are options available to institutions that want to build their own courses on the edX platform at no charge, but for partners who want help developing their courses, edX charges a base rate of $250,000 per course, then $50,000 for each additional time that course is offered; edX also takes a cut of any revenue the course generates.”

Most MOOC enthusiasts are administrators rather than faculty members and they seem to be failing to understand the costs associated with academic labor. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “there are also significant labor costs that come with offering MOOCs. A recent Chronicle survey found that professors typically spent 100 hours, sometimes much more, to develop their massive online courses, and then eight to 10 hours each week while the courses were in session. This commitment amounted to a major drain on their normal campus responsibilities.”

The survey cited in this quote included mostly science and mathematics courses. Professors in the humanities and social sciences probably spend well more than 8-10 hours per week in preparing courses and assessing student written work.

Of course, the most serious cost of MOOCs is the cost in learning. Numerous studies demonstrate that students learn more effectively in small classroom environments. For this reason, colleges and universities have long measured their student-to-faculty ratios, loudly advertising their low ratios whenever possible.

MOOC reverse the ratio, touting the most students “served” by single faculty members. Many MOOCs implicitly incorporate a corporate model of higher education, treating students as “customers” and “consumers” rather than as students engaged in learning.

The costs and limitations of MOOCs are not being taken seriously by tech-happy administrators and MOOC enthusiasts.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on some colleges’ refusals to partner with MOOC providers.

Update: A separate article reports on Duke University faculty’s recent rejection of 2U’s proposal to offer for-credit MOOCs.

Update: The Chronicle of Higher Education also reports on San José State University partnership with edX, which has prompted questions from the faculty. The Department of Philosophy at SJSU have decided not to use a Harvard professor’s course on “Justice” which is provided through edX. The letter by the faculty of the SJSU Department of Philosophy makes an important statement about the problems of MOOCs in higher education.


This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Digital Humanities, Education Policy, Humanities Education, Information Management, Undergraduate Work in History. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Cost of MOOCs

  1. There’s also the intellectual property issue: Faculty at my university are allowed to compete for one-time grants of $3,000 to develop an online or hybrid course that they plan to teach. The catch is that, once they’ve done the work, they don’t have any firm rights over the content.

    Also: “Khan academy”? Wasn’t that the villain in one of the Star Trek movies?

  2. Keep up the good work. I have posted a number of comments critiquing MOOCs on CHE forum and article threads. I think your efforts are excellent.

    • Henry: Thanks for your supportive comments. I will look for your comments on the CHE forum and in MOOC article threads. What do you see as the biggest advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs?

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