image credit: The Chronicle of Higher Education
My latest DMLCentral post is on for-profit MOOCs and how they profit from unpaid university labor:
academic publishing traditionally works in this way: a researcher is paid by a (frequently public) university to create research. The researcher then publishes this research as an article in a academic journal, some of which charge the researcher for this privilege, a bill which some universities help to pay. If that journal is published by a for-profit publisher, the article — bundled together with others — is then sold back to the university library for the university community to access. To recap: the university pays a researcher to produce research, then, after that research is given away to a for-profit publisher for free, buys that research back from the publisher. This seems like a silly practice for universities to subsidize, but it is good business for the publishers, who make profits in the range of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. My concern with for-profit MOOCs is that they will adopt a similar plan. Universities will pay their teachers to develop and teach courses — sometimes paying them extra to turn those courses into MOOCs — and that labor will be given freely, or at a reduced cost, to MOOC for-profits who will, in turn, sell it back to the university or sell it directly to college students.
This morning, I learned that West Virginia University, where I work, has signed a deal with Coursera that seems to justify my concerns. Here’s the update I added to the post:
Update, 5/30/2013: My employer, West Virginia University—along with nine other universities or university systems—just announced a partnership with Coursera to develop MOOCs and offer them to students.
According to the press release, WVU will initially offer Coursera courses for free and without credit. However, the Chronicle of Higher Educations has published more details about the contracts involved, which it reports are “pretty much identical.” Here is the relevant bit about what Coursera will be charging universities
In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.
Apparently, these deals are structured to incentivize universities to make these courses more “massive”: as the university adds more students, its cost will go down, but tuition charges to those students will stay the same.
It also appears that this structure largely mirrors the one I have described above: universities will pay their employees to create courses, give those courses to Coursera, and then Coursera will, in turn, charge the university for the privilege of allowing it to offer those courses—for which the university has shouldered the costs—to their students. The only difference from academic publishing seems to be that the university keeps some of the revenue, in this case the extra tuition money it charges students.