Return on Investment: Contrary to Popular Belief, MOOCs are Not Free

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  There’s no such thing as a free education, either.  Since its emergence in 2012, massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided students with cheap (if not free) access to education.  But what about institutions?  How can a ‘free’ program prove to be a sustainable practice for colleges and universities?

Marie Valentin of Texas A&M University wrote a paper examining the financial costs and gains of developing a MOOCs course for colleges or universities.  She will share her findings in her session “Return on Investment: Contrary to Popular Belief, MOOCs are not Free.”   

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Marie Valentine

Texas A&M University

Return on Investement: Contrary to Popular Belief, MOOCs are not Free

Monday, July 07, 2014 8:00 AM - 9:15 AM


Can you describe your paper on MOOCs?

Valentin: I wanted to find out if there is any sustainability with the current MOOC design. The original design of a MOOC was intended to offer education to the masses free of charge, especially in places that do not have easy access to higher education similar to that of the United States’. 

I wanted to find out the true cost of a MOOC and the direct and indirect return on investments.  I also wanted to find out the true cost for a student, one that would register for the course and then follow through all the way to the end.  Research has found that most MOOC participants don’t actually complete the course.  I was curious to find out why.

What costs are involved in creating a MOOC?

There were several platforms that could be used – EdX, Udacity, Coursera, just to name a few. A professor could partner with these platforms to create MOOC courses. Sometimes, this process requires almost no money to create.  MOOCs allow professors to create a MOOC course with almost zero money, while a major university can invest 22 million dollars to provide a large number of MOOC courses and programs to a wide array of potential students.  It all depends on what the professor or university wants to achieve.

What are some reasons why a college would want to create a MOOC?

There are actually 13 different ways universities and platform providers can benefit from a MOOC.  Professors can use MOOCs to promote textbook sales.  A university can create and offer a MOOC to market and recruit their degree program.  Universities can also offer certificates through the MOOC program that an individual could then use for job searches and possible promotion.  Georgia Tech is offering a Master’s Program utilizing MOOCs.  Universities and platforms can also create a contract where each share in the proceeds of data selling.

Students are not able to enjoy that 1-on-1 relationship with their MOOC professor, but they have the benefit of learning from their peers.  When you’re attending a lecture in a campus setting, the professor can only offer you his or her perspective and experiences.  In a MOOC, students can interact with other people from all walks of life.

Are MOOCs sustainable?  If not, how can they be?

Sustainability is a major concern, because how many times can you offer something for free?  There needs to be something to ensure financial stability.  Currently, there is no ROI model for MOOCs, and I argue in my research that there should be one.

It’s interesting to see how the MOOC has evolved from when it’s started in its original state.  The service started off as free, but it’s evolved now to where organizations and corporations are using it for training and development. 

I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago and I met one of the VP’s for GE.  He was talking about how their organization is utilizing a MOOC to provide training for their employees.  To me, that’s the new direction that MOOCs are heading in.  The beauty of MOOCs is that institutions can design it to fit their needs.

What kind of experience does Texas A&M have with MOOCs?

We have a professor within our department who offers a course on creating MOOCs. Our research is leading us to determine whether we should create MOOC offerings.  There’s nothing we have from our department as of yet, but it’s in the works.

What are some lessons you hope attendees will gain from your session?

I’m actually looking forward to hearing attendees’ perspectives, viewpoints and criticisms. When we present at a conference, feedback is our ultimate goal.  That feedback can help guide our future research.