Finding the Right MOOC Market for College Kids

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When MOOCs began to make waves in the educational and popular press, the fact that a single massive course was enrolling 3-5 times the number of students attending Berkeley indicated to some that a long-awaited alternative to an overpriced college education was looming.

Built into a narrative that saw MOOCs as the great disruptor of traditional higher education was the assumption that the conventional college-age cohort of 18-22 year olds (and their parents) currently shelling out thousands to attend school would be so thrilled about free courses from the world’s most prestigious colleges and universities that demand would be met by not just an increase in MOOC supply but by mechanisms for turning completing those courses into formal college credit.

What a difference two years of experience (and data) can make.  For we now know that out of every ten students enrolled in a MOOC, only 2-3 tend to fall into that college-age demographic.  And even if you treat those who don’t finish a course as a complex set of sub-groups (rather than a bunch of drop-outs) the fact remains that five- and six-figure enrollments only translate to four-figure graduation totals.

Still, given the large numbers associated with any MOOC, the number of younger learners participating in most massive classes is substantial.  But how many of them have shown interest in turning their MOOC experience into college credit (especially if fees or extra work is involved)?

Udacity took a lot of flak for their recent pivot away from conventional education, but that pivot was based on data derived from a series of gutsy experiments designed to see if (1) MOOCs could provide an effective substitute for a residential college course; and (2) if so, would students be willing to pay something for such a resulting credit?

For instance, when Colorado State University Global Campus gave students the chance to substitute passing a Udacity programming course and paying an $85 processing fee for the $1000 associated with taking (and passing) an equivalent residential class, zero students took them up on the offer.  Similarly, by the end of 2013 not one student signed up to receive a transcript from the American Council on Education (ACE) that would allow them to use accredited MOOCs from Udacity and Coursera as potential substitutes for residential classes.

Now it may be that shaving a course or two off a degree just doesn’t provide enough benefit to justify jumping through the hoops needed to turn MOOCs (or other alternative credit programs) into a shorter (and less pricy) timeframe needed to achieve a degree.  Or perhaps the constant complaints we hear about the high cost of college mask the fact that families still feel this is a price worth paying, even when alternatives are available.

But there is also the possibility that those who saw MOOCs as an Internet revolution (which implies real-time disruption and near-term monetization) lacked the patience needed to guide the slower evolutionary processes that characterize change in traditional institutions like colleges and universities.

After all, alternative credit programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) have been around for decades.  And, unlike MOOCs, these programs generate millions of dollars each year for The College Board without generating the kind of angry headlines we saw during last year’s MOOC backlash.

In retrospect, the notion of students using MOOCs as a complete replacement for college now seems fanciful.  For not only do most eighteen year olds lack the self-discipline needed to take full advantage of MOOCs and other independent learning programs, they also lack the entrepreneurship needed to convert non-traditional learning experience into credit.  And students who do possess these qualities are just as likely to be attracted to Ivy League-caliber scholarships, or options like Thiel Fellowship or Uncollege that bypass college entirely.

But ideas like allowing students to earn a four-year BA while only paying a school for three are already being floated by educators such as Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University.  And if such changes eventually come about (changes, it should be noted, that are revenue neutral for institutions), there is no reason MOOCs cannot sit alongside AP, credit-by-exam, Gap Year or various transfer programs that could make up a year of credits earned outside institutional walls.

If MOOCs are going to have a seat at this table, however, both the educators and investors behind them need to be ready to treat this segment of the market as a long-term investment.

See the first article in this series, MOOCs and the 'Slope of Enlightenment' if you're interested in Jonathan Haber's quest to complete the equivalent of a four-year liberal arts degree in a  "One Year BA" or want to hear how the MOOC market landed in it's current position.

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