The title of this post is purely rhetorical because no one has asked me to teach a MOOC. In fact, I have not been involved with MOOCs at all, except as an observer from afar. Instead, the title is the result of me wondering why anyone would teach a course with tens of thousands of students enrolled (maybe more), who you would never meet, and for which there is an enormous amount of start up effort (designing the course, filming the lectures, figuring out the grading algorithms, etc., etc.)?
I understand why universities want to get MOOCs out there with their most prominent professors teaching them. Having a big name professor offer a MOOC brings many, many eyeballs to your campus logo (and even better to the website) and helps burnish your image in a global market for higher education. In short, MOOCs are marketing dollars well spent, even if they aren’t yet showing any sign they are good for the bottom line, given the terms that companies like Coursera are offering colleges and universities.
But why would a professor, especially a prominent (and presumably busy) professor, bother to spend all the time and effort necessary to bring a MOOC to market and then, one assumes, have some connection to its implementation? After all, designing a new course or redesigning an old one takes a lot of time in the analog world. When you consider the time required to film lectures, work with an editor to polish up that film and add in B-roll, design online assignments and assessments, and think through how students are going to progress through the various online materials, a MOOC represents a lot of time and effort.
After puzzling on this question, I can think of two answers.
The first is what we might call educational altruism. MOOCs offer faculty members a chance to make their courses available, for free, to the widest possible audience. As scholars we are supposed to be engaged in the circulation of knowledge, and being able to circulate one’s knowledge of a particular subject to 70,000 or 100,000 students, even if only a tiny fraction of them complete the course, is a potentially wonderful thing. I’m not sure that those students learn anywhere near what they would learn in a well designed face to face class, given that MOOCs largely replicate the lecture/listen binary model that is so ubiquitous in large American universities. That model has been demonstrated in countless studies by cognitive scientists to yield only minimal learning gains, even when taught by famous, or brilliant lecturers. But if the purpose of teaching a MOOC on one’s subject is to make one’s expertise in a given subject available, for free, to as many people as possible, that’s a laudable act. I’m not sure how much of this educational altruism there is out there, but I’m willing to admit that it might really exist.
The second reason is more mercenary and involves the sale of books and/or other collateral products. In particular, I wondered whether MOOCs offered faculty members an opportunity to make some serious money on the teaching and learning products that they have created?
To test my idea that book sales might just be part of the reason why some faculty members would teach a MOOC, I randomly selected eight courses across the disciplines and from various universities on the Coursera website. I tried to do the same thing at the Udacity site, but one cannot read the course syllabi there. What I found was that on all eight syllabi, the only readings students were expected to do were from free and open source/open access materials. However, five of the eight professors recommended or suggested as optional books that they had written, ranging in price from $8 to $110. One of the professors recommends only open source works, and the other two recommend books published by others for either $44 or $142.
If we assume for a minute that some fraction of the tens of thousands of students taking part in a given MOOC go ahead and purchase the “recommended” or “optional” book written by the professor teaching the course, the potential for significant earnings via book sales is very real. For the sake of argument, let’s say that I taught a MOOC that drew 50,000 students and I recommended as optional the ebook version of my new book ($19.95). And, for the sake of this same argument, let’s say that 10% of the students purchased a copy. Under the terms of my contract with the press, I would make just under $7,000 in royalties from the sale of those books. While $7,000 is not enough for the downpayment on that beach house I’ve been wanting, it’s still $7,000 in additional income.
Different states and different institutions have widely varying rules (and even laws) governing whether faculty members can require students to purchase a book from which the faculty member receives income. But those rules were made with the standard course for credit model in mind. MOOCs disrupt that model by not offering credit and in the cases I looked at, by having all textbooks be “recommended” or “optional.” Once MOOCs move to the credit bearing/tuition charging mode, it will be interesting to see whether there is any change in this approach. I suspect there won’t be, if only because the openness of a MOOC begins to break down once it starts to get expensive for students.