To MOOC or Not to MOOC? What’s In It For Me?

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.

5 replies on “To MOOC or Not to MOOC? What’s In It For Me?”

  1. A third reason is a variant of #2: ego and self-branding. Even if you don’t have a textbook in Widget Studies ready to “recommend” to your MOOC consumers, there is a market advantage to being regarded by thousands as the leading expert in Widget Studies via a prominent MOOC. For some, that advantage is intellectual – your version of Widget Studies will become more accepted as the norm in the field – while for others the promise is more about salary bumps, upward mobility across institutions, grant/fellowship opportunities, etc., not to mention just the thrill of international recognition and the future opportunities it might bring.

    Couldn’t you ask the same question as to why any faculty member would blog? It’s time-consuming & gets you no “official” accomplishments to put on your CV – but many of us still carve out time to do it, for a combination of altruism, self-promotion, and the pleasure of community & conversation. That being said, my blog doesn’t undercut the publication opportunities of other faculty, while arguably teaching a MOOC does threaten teaching opportunities for others.

  2. When our team at IU designed ivmooc, sitting in the countless meetings to get the thing off the ground, we did so for altruistic reasons. The site does suggest my advisor’s book as advised reading (it’s relevant), although once and never again, and we didn’t even think to link to it until well after we’d designed the course. All of our software is open source, and we make a point of making data (generated here and elsewhere) publicly and freely available online.

    As Jason points out, the branding is also nice, and though we never brought it up in the meetings, that was part of my rationale for taking part when I already had to be dealing with finishing my phd. That said, I also believe that the more people have access to knowledge and training opportunities, the better. When I talk to other MOOC instructors, especially those with tenure, they seem to feel the same way; I really don’t think anyone’s making loads of money off book sales.

    It sounds like you put altruism at the lowest rung of the latter, but from my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems the cynical solution might not be the most accurate.

  3. It’s reasonable to wonder if profit, ego and self-promotion are part of the motivation, and we should be on guard against those and hold MOOCs to high standards But I hope people won’t rush to those conclusions or use any few cases of it to tar the MOOC concept itself. For one thing, despite their giant presence in the media coverage of MOOCs, Coursera is still a fraction of the overall MOOC offerings. A much larger universe of independent and unaffiliated MOOCs preceded and continues to grow outside of Coursera. Second, the 3 other MOOCs in your sample suggest other motives than profit. Third, the profit and self-promotion explanations don’t ring true in my experience. I’ve asked several school administrators and teaching faculty the question you’re asking — What’s in it for them? I believe they are sincere when they say they are just energized as educators by the possibility of reaching more people MOOCs offer a new opportunity to achieve their educational mission, and the desire to learn more about that may be the most true explanation. It certainly sounds so to me. I would encourage you to look at the UW – La Crosse math MOOC profiled on our site last week and consider what’s in it for those teachers. I didn’t get a whiff of ego in talking with them.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  4. Excellent post, Mills. Of the MOOC instructors I know personally (the Vanderbilt professors, as well as a couple of others here and there), educational altruism seems to be the primary motivator, with perhaps a bit of the self-branding Jason mentioned. Some are also interested in the experiment of it all–what kind of learning can one foster in a course of tens of thousands?

    Thinking about your random sample, I wonder if there’s some sample bias in there. I get the impression that most universities partnering with Coursera aren’t letting their junior faculty teach MOOCS. It’s too risky of a move for those without tenure. That leaves only the more experienced faculty in the pool of MOOC instructors. Since you don’t want a dud MOOC, you want to have a rather accomplished faculty member in there teaching, preferably on something they know very, very well. So the faculty most likely to teach MOOCs are senior, experienced, and well-versed in their topics… exactly the kind of faculty most likely to have written books.

    The questions you raise about profiting off of MOOCs are still relevant, of course. I’m just not sure how many of the MOOC faculty out there are primarily motivated by book sales.

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