Has Coursera solved the catch-22 of for-credit MOOCs?

It’s the catch-22 of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Students want college credit for MOOCs, which would raise the price tag of the often-free courses.

One campus technologist said a full tuition MOOC wouldn’t garner support.

At the same time, the fact that MOOCs are free is the main reason most students take the courses to begin with.

But, Coursera may have begun to solve this riddle. The platform announced last week that it had reached $1 million in revenue from its Signature Track courses, which offer verified certificates for a fee.

“The success of the Signature Track program validates the potential for students to benefit from what is becoming a brand new currency for lifelong learning achievement,” the company said on its blog.

While Coursera sees this as evidence that a new, cheaper alternative to the traditional college credit is gaining more mainstream acceptance, it could also provide something else to educators: proof that plenty of students are willing to pay up to $100 for what has been billed as free educational content.

If students are willing to do that, could that mean they’re also willing to pay even more per course to receive the traditional, and still much more widely-recognized, college credit?

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said that would have to be determined by how discounted universities are willing to make the price tag.

“If a university were to offer a MOOC course, certificate, or degree at a modest rate, I believe that students would sign up,” Schroeder said. “Charging 10 percent or less of normal tuition for a MOOC-delivered program is likely to be very popular. Charging full tuition for a MOOC is far less likely to garner much support.”

See Page 2 for details about how MOOCs and universities could be forever at odds.

Universities have so far struggled with finding a cheap but viable way to offer accredited MOOCs.

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.

Schroeder said that awareness remains an obstacle for even those universities willing to cut the cost of an accredited online course. Students may be willing to pay for “free” courses now, but the reality is that these users are just a fraction of a small segment of students who even know that the courses exist.

“Students really don’t know about MOOCs,” Schroeder said. “Those of us in this field talk about MOOCs every day, but students are not broadly aware of them. While there has been some general national coverage, they don’t really know all of this is going on.”

Of course, building awareness is even more difficult when a large amount of educators are not fans of MOOCs to begin with, no matter if they come with college credit.

Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, said that the trajectory MOOC platforms like Coursera are taking could be at odds with the goals of many major research universities.

The success of Coursera’s Signature Track courses shows that there is at last potential to go around the traditional college credit, Horn said, but the question now is whether employers will grow to respect MOOC certificates in a way that’s comparable to a college course or degree.

The goals for MOOCs then would be wrapped up in addressing the needs of employers, and preparing students to impress those employers. Meanwhile, the goals for universities tend to be more focused on the research desires of their professors, Horn said.

And that could be a difference that’s hard to reconcile, even if the students themselves are willing to pay for the courses through their university.

The effect could be MOOCs and universities growing further part, not coming closer together.

“A lot of people right now are complaining about accreditation and so on for being such a barrier, which it is, but the history of disruption shows that when barriers collapse, it happens by going around them in different ways, not always going through,” Horn said. “I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of that here.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at eCN_Jake.

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