Like other internet startups, MOOC companies look to earn revenue from their massive user base by charging for premium or add-on services while keeping the core content free. For many MOOC students, however, a certificate of completion with no career or academic value has not been incentive enough to finish the courses they signed up for. The dismal completion rates are an indication that any focus on the numbers of registrants is “seriously misplaced,” says atomic physicist David Pritchard, who heads the Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively group at MIT. “The number of certificate earners is a far better measure of the amount of education happening.”
To entice students to complete their courses, Udacity and Coursera have launched career services that match high-performing students who opt in and employee-seeking companies that pay in. Other monetization options being considered include charging students for virtual private-tutoring sessions and selling access to anonymized and aggregated user data. In the case of edX, whose software is open source, universities may be billed for technical support in setting up their own local MOOC platform.
Universities are also looking to cash in on potential MOOC revenues. California’s San Jose State University, which has three math courses on Udacity, and the UT system were among the first to announce that, for a fee, their students will be able to earn college credits from select MOOCs. Other universities are joining an initiative called MOOC2Degree, which converts their core entrance courses into free MOOCs with the hopes that students will continue in a degree program.
Universities may use their MOOCs to attract talented students from other parts of the world, says UMD physics professor Victor Galitski, an instructor for Exploring Quantum Physics, which will debut on Coursera this month. Beyond financial gains, another benefit MOOCs offer academia is a large data set for educational research. For example, institutions that join edX are asked to appoint faculty to collect and analyze data on student learning—findings that can then be applied to improving the on-campus educational experience, says Agarwal.
A large number of students taking MOOCs live in developing and emerging countries. In those regions, “MOOCs can have a big and important impact,” says Fernando Quevedo, director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. This year the center will post lectures online from its recently disbanded Diploma Programme in Basic Physics, which brought underprepared postgraduate students from developing countries up to speed for entrance into math and science PhD programs. Quevedo has commissioned a resident scientist at the center to evaluate MOOCs as replacements for that diploma program. “I’m a big fan of putting course content online,” he says. “It would be unwise to have the technology available and not exploit it.”
Some physics educators see MOOCs as a possible substitute for lectures in the “flipped classroom” model, which serves up lectures online and reserves class time for activities and problem solving. Last fall UT Austin particle physicist Sacha Kopp, who has submitted two course proposals for the edX platform, taught a flipped Introduction to Modern Physics course to some 300 physics majors. Prior to class, students were expected to watch a set of learning modules—lectures that Kopp says he videotaped at his kitchen table—and answer a set of questions. In class, Kopp would briefly review the module material, administer quizzes, and facilitate small-group problem-solving sessions.
“The flipped classroom was a welcome change because it solves the problem of not immediately understanding the material during a lecture,” says Kopp’s student Evan Ott. “We could rewind the online lecture [and read] the in-class notes online” after class. Classmate Allyson Rice says the problem-solving sessions in class addressed her biggest complaint with traditional physics courses, that “there’s so much time spent in class deriving equations.” The convenience of the online lectures was “nice,” she adds, “but, for me, I don’t think they made much of a difference.”