For college administrators, it’s the big question surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs): Can these ostensibly free classes ever actually generate revenue for the universities offering them?


A new study suggests that college leaders and faculty do not view massive open online courses (MOOCs) as an immediate path to revenue or cost savings.

While MOOC platforms and providers hope the verdict on revenue is still to come, a new study indicates that college leaders and faculty may have already made up their mind, and they’re not seeing dollar signs on the horizon.

The study, which was conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE) and InsideTrack, was based on interviews with campus administrators and instructors who all have first-hand experience with MOOCs, which are not free to produce but are often free to take.

Both groups said they don’t see MOOCs as an immediate path to revenue, or even to cost savings.

“Like making a big budget movie and finding out no one wants to see it,” one interviewee said, “if you try to generate revenue out of the gate, you will lose money.”

That’s not to say faculty who have taught a MOOC don’t like the courses.

Nearly all of the respondents said that teaching a MOOC had been beneficial to them, and all but 8 percent said they planned on teaching more MOOCs. More than two-thirds of the interviewees said they would recommend teaching a MOOC to a colleague.

In short, these faculty members are fans of MOOCs. They just don’t see them as a way to make any money.

See Page 2 for why universities’ pessimism regarding MOOC revenue is not for lack of trying.

Some universities are certainly trying to turn the online courses into a revenue stream, though.

Two University of Texas at Austin psychology professors recently started their own massive online course, and they’re charging students a $550 registration fee that would grant them three credit hours after the course is completed.

That’s quite a discount from the usual $2,059 students would have to pay for those credits, but with 1,500 participants signed up so far, the course could bring in at least $825,000.

The professors, because of this fee, are referring to the course not as a MOOC, but a synchronous massive online course, or a SMOC.

While charging money for the course stops it from being a truly open course, it is still open to anyone in the world that can afford it, not just students at the university.

Similar attempts at other universities to earn revenue from MOOCs have been a struggle.

Last year, Colorado State University-Global Campus began offering credit for a computer science MOOC. A year later, no students have taken advantage of the deeply discounted course.

San Jose State University in May announced that their partnership with Udacity to offer for-credit MOOCs was being “paused” after many students had trouble passing the courses.

Meanwhile, the MOOC platform Coursera may have begun to solve the revenue issue from an off-campus stand-point, but even that development is an ongoing experiment.

So if administrators and faculty both think MOOCs will fail to generate revenue and actually cost the university money in the process, why is there still enthusiasm for the courses?

ACE and InsideTrack’s study provides a few possibilities.

Nearly half of the interviewees said MOOCs are a highly important part of expanding an institution’s global reach.

Sixty-eight percent said the courses are an important part of increasing access to higher education. More than half of the respondents said MOOCs are a very important piece of developing an instructor’s online pedagogy.

“Technophiles look at this as quick fix,” an interviewee said. “We need to reject that notion, and the Luddite inclination to hunker down and resist at all costs.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.