Three brief thoughts on “A University’s Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers”

I think I came across the CHE’s “A University’s Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers” via someone’s twitter feed the other day. To me, it’s an important article to think about in terms of MOOCs and money.  Here’s a quote from the opening paragraphs:

It was big news last fall when Colorado State University-Global Campus became the first college in the United States to grant credit to students who passed a MOOC, or massive open online course.

For students, it meant a chance to get college credit on the cheap: $89, the cost of the required proctored exam, compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.

That is a big discount.

Yet almost a year after Global Campus made the announcement, officials are still waiting for their first credit bargain-hunters.

Not one student has taken the university up on its offer.

A lot of the article downplays this failure, pointing out that this particular class was targeted to a small market, it’s early in the history of MOOCs, the demographics of MOOCs are mostly older students, etc. In other words, it sort of concludes “but don’t worry, the MOOC revolution is still coming!”

Three brief thoughts:

Something similar happened with “traditional” online classes.  I am simultaneously too lazy and too busy to find the citation, but way back when the end of the university as we know was going to be brought about by more traditional and reasonably sized online classes. One of the major publishers decided they were going to offer courses like first year writing for credit directly, bypassing universities entirely. In other words, instead of taking a section of first year writing at EMU or even at a community college to transfer to EMU, students would take their class directly from Cengage (or whoever).  There were articles about how this was the end of the university, etc., and once again, no one signed up for these courses. The whole “take a course direct from the publisher” thing closed up within a year.

MOOCs have a serious audience problem.  “xMOOC” enthusiasts (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, and university administrators looking at dollar signs) keep arguing that they’re trying to extend access to education at a lower cost (and larger volume!) to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to college because of money, because of geography, etc. The problem– as this article points out– is that the vast majority of people participating in MOOCs right now aren’t these people; rather, they are older people who already have college degrees and who are taking MOOCs for “edutainment.”

This represents a complete miss of the audience Udacity and Coursera actually want and need to make any money at this. People taking MOOCs for edutainment are not going to pay anything for credit hours because they don’t want or need them.

Actual college students are not interested in cheap courses that might (or might not) transfer; they’re interested in a credential. In other words, while the gainfully employed and educated 30-something out there in the “first world” might take a MOOC about computer science or nutrition or whatever just because its interesting, 18-year-olds who want a college education won’t.  They’re not coming to places like EMU to take a class or two because it’s “edutaining;” they come to places like EMU go get a complete degree that they can leverage as experience and as a requirement for a job and/or graduate school.

College students are very specific in their goals.  They might not know what they want to major in and they might not know what they want to do after they get a degree, but they all are here for that credential/diploma/seal of approval. In fact, I would say that one of the more common reasons why students drop out is they come to the realization after a year or so worth of classes that they actually aren’t interested in a degree (though a lot of those students end up coming back to college a few years later).

In contrast, MOOC students are just kind of curious and looking for something to do that they find interesting and fulfilling. If you asked 100 college students if they would be doing all the work of college classes if there was no credential awarded at the end– that is, if they would just be doing all of this “just because”– I’d bet you that 98 of them would say “heck no!” In contrast, if you asked 100 MOOC students if they expected some kind of credential/diploma/seal of approval as a result of the work they put into the MOOC, I’d bet you that 98 of them would say “heck no!”

One closely related point here (three and a half points?): I’m not sure that the cost of tuition matters that much to most college students (and/or their parents). Of course it matters some. Cost of attendance is a factor students and parents have to consider, I think it costs way too much to go to college, and I think the U.S. would be dramatically better off in all sorts of ways if our society made public higher education free.

But even with all the attention rising tuition has received in the mainstream media in the last couple of years, it is clear that cost of attendance is not the primary decision about applying to and attending a particular university. If it was the main factor, then places like EMU and Washtenaw Community College would be turning students away and places like the more expensive U of Michigan just down the road would have to do all it could do to fill seats. Enrollment at EMU is up, but the U of M still turns away about two-thirds of its applicants.

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