Suddenly, a lot of people are taking very seriously the notion that quality higher education can be free. Through the open courseware movement and the publicity attached to Stanford and MIT’s free courses, college courses are starting to be seen as just another form of content. One might think it would be difficult to build a sustainable business model out of producing something that others are giving away – especially if you’re a college or university trying to compete with free courses from the likes of MIT and Stanford, but of course that hasn’t been the case. Open courseware has operated on the margins of the higher education system because students could not get credits or degrees for courses completed.
However, open courseware appears to have reached a breakout point with the publicity about the Stanford artificial intelligence course that enrolled 160,000 students, with 23,000 completing. The feature of the Stanford course that made it unique (and may have driven the enormous interest) was their announcement that they would award a certificate to students who completed the course.
More or less simultaneously, and perhaps in response, MIT launched MITx, which promises to award certificates to students completing courses and credentials for completing defined sequences of courses.
So now we have Coursera, which launched with $16 million in venture capital and has signed up five elite institutions to offer free courses. Their ambition is bold, as stated in their vision statement: “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.” According to the business press, Coursera’s business model is based on charging either students or employers for validating the learning of students obtained through their courses. Udacity, co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught the Stanford course, is another startup in this space.
Of course, MIT, Stanford and the rest are not dummies – they know the true market value of what they are selling lies in the degree, not the course content. It’s the recognition that one has actually completed those courses and mastered what they teach that matters in the marketplace. Which is why the new approaches of open courseware providers to grant some sort of certificate, credit, or credential is so interesting.