Where do people receive their education? In schools and universities, right? But why not from the comfort of your own home, through rich online media content that can replicate the classroom experience?
This is the challenge that many educators and online course providers have accepted. At primary and high school level, there are clearly some social and emotional aspects of learning and development that take place in a brick and mortar school – so let’s put that aside for a moment and just consider higher, degree level education – can that be delivered just as effectively online? And how does this go down with universities, what do they stand to lose or gain?
Traditional universities and academic institutions provide value to students essentially because the faculty has a set of particular expertise, the institution possesses some valuable proprietary material and the campus buildings provide a place where access to these things can be structured and provided – ultimately resulting in a degree qualification that can be of enormous value to the student. The business model of private schools and universities is fairly straightforward at a high level. The total revenue collected in tuition fees must cover the salaries of faculty (normally the major cost) plus any other operating costs. When you boil this down to the simplest “school” imaginable, with one physical classroom, one teacher and any given number of students, the revenue and cost drivers of the “business” are clearer to see – maximising earnings is achieved by sweating key assets (namely the classroom and the teacher) by filling the classroom with as many fee-paying students as possible without compromising quality.
When this is translated into the online environment, the economics look even more appealing – with the same teacher’s expertise, we can reach anyone in the world with an internet connect because we are not limited by having to be in a physical space of constrained size. A single “classroom” is now accessible to thousands if not millions of fee-paying students – courses delivered online in this way are called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). Universities have, to varying degrees, experimented with turning their traditionally classroom based courses into MOOCs that consist of filmed lectures, animated videos, interactive digital content, articles, graphics, discussion threads, written assignments and quizzes.
Some organisations aim to provide MOOCS on a not for profit basis for research purposes (one large example being the Harvard/ MIT collaboration called EdX – www.edx.org ) while others like Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) are attempting to make a profitable business providing MOOCs. Coursera partners with universities from all over the world in its attempt to be a one-stop-shop for any course a student might want to take – they currently have 147 partners (including Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, UMich) across 29 countries offering 1,888 courses . What’s interesting about Coursera’s business model is that all courses are available to anyone for free, but if you want any certification for having taken or passed a course it could cost you between $30 and $100 . Other possible revenue streams for the business could “include introducing students to potential employers and recruiters (with student consent), tutoring, licensing, sponsorships and tuition fees” .
For universities, this is a completely new potential revenue stream and addition to their business model, whether it be either licencing their content to businesses like Coursera or charging students directly. It does, however, come with significant challenges. For a start, uploading existing powerpoint presentations and videos of traditional classroom lessons doesn’t cut it – students demand more and online pedagogy is very different to that of the classroom, leading to very high course production costs. The second major difficulty is assessment and accreditation, a crucial end product from taking any educational course – how does one teacher, or even one faculty body assess the learning progress of millions of students? One solution is the use of self-marking quizzes and peer assessment, but is this a rigorous enough basis upon which to award a degree?
Some people think MOOCs have had their day , while many universities and companies like Coursera continue to pursue the model. The University of Illinois offers a purely online and fully accredited MBA through Coursera for about $22,000 (https://www.coursera.org/university-programs/imba) – would you consider that option for the fraction of the cost of a traditional MBA? In the shoes of an employer, would you value the two qualifications equally?
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