I’ve come out of MOOC retirement.

I remember exactly when I took my first MOOC. It was Fall 2012 (during the run up to the last presidential election) and I was on sabbatical.  If I didn’t have all that extra time on my hands I never would have finished it.  I’ve signed up for a couple of more since then (like the one with edX just so I could see if their syllabi actually had required reading), but I never really did any work on those.  Recently, I started classifying my Coursera e-mail as spam so I wouldn’t even have to think about MOOCs quite so much anymore.

Yet much to my shock, I’ve come out of MOOC retirement. While I’m not doing the work for the University of Houston’s Digital Storytelling MOOC, I have decided to do watch the videos because I really want to be able to introduce digital storytelling as a possibility into my next digital history class.  All I really need is some knowledge about the tools with which I can experiment. When I actually teach this stuff we’ll all kind of fake it together.

That’s good, because if I had wanted to do the work in the MOOC and get it graded, I’d have had to pay Coursera for a certificate.  So much for open.

Not only is the grading now a privilege you have to pay for, Coursera is pushing the opportunity to get a certificate at the end of every video. Here’s an exact quote of their nagging ad (at least in week #1) in its entirety:

Purchase a Certificate today, and you’ll support Coursera’s mission to provide universal access to education.

Open access.  We want everyone to have access to the world’s top courses. We  provide financial aid to all learners with need.

New courses. Revenue from Certificates funds new course development.

Of course, the very existence of Coursera’s many investors is never acknowledged.

Going back through my blog archives, it wasn’t hard for me to find the post where I saw this coming. I wrote this in 2014:

[Coursera co-founder Daphne] Koller, and by extension the rest of the MOOC Messiah Squad, are performing a huge intellectual switcheroo by making arguments like this one. They’re replacing the promise of universal higher education with the promise of universal ACCESS to higher education. We’ll let you listen to our superprofessors for free, she is essentially saying, but you have to do the hard work of obtaining an actual education all by yourself.

If you think this change is why Daphne Koller left Coursera, remember that it took her two more years to actually leave. The investors’ desire to monetize Coursera overtook the promise of educating the world long before she actually departed.  At least when you give PBS $50, they’ll give you a free tote bag.

Actually, Coursera’s business plan now reminds me now more of a company like Evernote than it does public broadcasting. Provide a free service that people find useful, then constantly upsell your customers in the hopes that they might pay up for it. I still use Evernote even after they limited the free service to a total of two devices because it’s useful to me. I haven’t paid them a cent. Evernote is well on its way to going out of business.

I’m well past caring whether any particular Silicon Valley company, be it Evernote or Coursera, is actually making money. What I remain concerned about is the creeping corporatization of higher education.

To explain what I mean here, I’ll pick on my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s Penn President Amy Gutmann from way back in 2012 (when MOOCs were young):

“Penn is delighted to participate in this innovative collaboration that will make high-quality learning opportunities available to millions of people around the world,” Gutmann says. “Expanding access to higher education both nationally and globally remains one of our most critical responsibilities. This initiative provides an invaluable opportunity for anyone who has the motivation and preparation to partake of a world-class education.”

But Coursera isn’t helping Penn provide “high-quality learning opportunities” to “millions of people around the world” anymore. They’re helping Penn provide mostly static content to millions of people around the world and access to low-quality learning opportunities for people with the willingness and resources to pay for it. Heck, they might as well just go back to the old MIT model of taping course lectures there and putting them online. Why not (partially) cut out the middleman and just put your videos up on iTunes U?  Because Penn is an investor in Coursera, that’s why.

MOOCs were never about universal higher education. They were always about making money.  Faculty and students at any university with a MOOC partner ought to recognize that by now, and pressure their schools to un-partner immediately. Then they can develop their own platforms and offer their own MOOCs on any terms they want. Hopefully, those terms will go back to really being open again.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Mo Pelzel

    I’m mostly with you on this, but just to play devil’s advocate:

    “I haven’t paid them a cent. Evernote is well on its way to going out of business.”

    So…how is a company supposed to avoid going out of business if customers don’t pay for their products? I mean, I want to read your new book, Education is not an App, but the paperback is $37.27 at Amazon…to be honest, that’s more than I can afford. So I will have my library get a copy, and then read that. So I won’t pay a cent. But if no one pays Routledge for anything, they might also be well on their way to going out of business. :))

    1. Jonathan Rees


      I hear you. My philosophy is that if some digital provider gives an irreplaceable service then I am willing to pay for it. That’s why I have an NYT subscription and I’m a premium Instapaper user (so I can search through my extensive clips). You also remind me that I need to join TPM Prime.

      With respect to Instapaper, there are plenty of other notes programs. Indeed, all my reserach is on Zotero for a reason. I use Evernote as a serachable memo pad, and if it went all premium I don’t think I’d miss it. It took me four years to do anything serious again because there are other ways to get the info I wanted too (like DS106 as someone reminded me on Twitter this morning). I picked this one just because I wanted to lurk. If they charged for it, I’d rethink that stance.

      On our book, I always imagined it as something that a faculty member would get on Kindle and read in a weekend as self-imposed professional development. That’s why JP (my co-author) talked Routledge into lowering the e-book price. Thanks for reminding me to make sure they followed through on that promise.

      1. Mo Pelzel

        That’s cool…and I am certainly no paragon when it comes to paying up for everything I use (e.g., I read the NYT for free in “incognito” browser mode, and the Washington Post for free with a .edu account). Your response challenges me to think more deeply about this…I guess my operative philosophy has been that if content and service providers allow loopholes around paywalls (incognito, etc.), then they must be in a position to absorb that loss of revenue…but I’m really only justifying my free-riding there, I suppose.

        And to be fair, your book is available on Kindle for much less ($14.95, I think)…though I find myself these days wanting to read books in print, and haven’t touched my Kindle in months. In any event, I look forward to reading it soon! Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      My plan was to lurk there, then go to DS106 when I have the faintest idea of what I’m talking about.

  2. Steven D. Krause

    Thanks for posting this, and thanks also for reminding me that I need to make a trip back into “MOOC-land” in the next few months myself. I think the MOOC you’re taking and the reasons you’re taking it are pretty sound, though personally, I’m interested in trying to take a MOOC that is decidedly not “edutainment” but something that is either required and/or “good for me.” I’m imagining something like a low-level (albeit college-level) math course.

    See, part of the problem I’ve always had for MOOCs is they work perfectly fine if the learner is highly motivated by self-interests (“this seems like it would be interesting or fun to learn about”) or by clear external rewards (“my employer said if I complete the Coursera certification on “Digital Marketing,” I can get a promotion into that job”). But a lot of education– particularly at the “Gen Ed” level– are about things that everyone should learn but that aren’t necessarily a lot of “fun.” Among other things, I teach first year composition courses, and for a lot of students, that’s a form of water torture. I understand. I feel the same way about math. But I also know– especially now that I’m closing in on the 30th anniversary of my college graduation– that I really should learn some college-level math, and I also know that students do benefit from a college composition and rhetoric course.

    In any event, the high drop-out rate of MOOCs isn’t a problem if MOOCs are for “edutainment” or even if they are designed to provide a general sense of access that remains “free” because a small percentage of people are willing to pay something for it. But without that motivation…

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