MOOCs and free online education for all: a crucial crossroads

MOOCs and free online education for all: a crucial crossroads


Peter Stokes is the executive director of postsecondary innovation at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

Daphne Koller makes a compelling case that her company Coursera (which partners with universities to offer free online courses open to anyone) and its massive open online course (MOOC) counterparts have the potential to transform lives. During a recent presentation at Northeastern University, Koller shared rich anecdotes about learners who live far from their U.S.-based courses of study who have put these opportunities to use in their personal and professional lives.

While the vast potential for Coursera, and for MOOCs generally, is in many respects inspiring, they are at a cross roads.

If increasing access to great education is the goal for Coursera and its partner institutions, there’s still work to be done. Reportedly, as many as 80 percent of Coursera students currently enrolled already possess a bachelor’s degree or more. During the recent Coursera Partners’ Conference at the University of Pennsylvania (one of Coursera’s founding partners), attendees expressed concerns that MOOCs might merely serve as an intellectual playground for those who are already well educated.

While it’s true that while MOOCs are still frequently free, the costs to institutions—some of which have as many as 10 or 20 MOOCs up and running— are not insignificant, running about $50,000 per course on average, according to some Coursera partner institutions. And that’s not counting the time faculty put into designing and developing these courses.

During a keynote at the Coursera Partners’ Conference, former Princeton University President William Bowen observed that the traditional faculty governance model may not be well suited to the online learning era, and a number of university attendees voiced their challenges in getting faculty to shift from a position of course ownership to one of course authorship. Under this model, a course might be delivered not just by one faculty member but by any number of instructors.

These are difficult cultural waters to navigate, and MOOCs may help us to find our away across them, or we may find that MOOCs are swept out of the way if they cannot.

What we do know is that MOOCs are getting a lot of attention, and that alone has the power to make positive change by stimulating important discussions about pedagogy, faculty’s roles and institutions’ missions. It remains to be seen whether companies like Coursera can produce the returns their investors are seeking or whether its partner institutions can arrive at sustainable business models. According to recent reports, Coursera generated $220,000 in revenue over the first quarter of 2013. It’s a start, but there’s still a long, long way to go for a company that’s raised more than $20 million in venture capital. Stay tuned.

Peter Stokes was featured this week in a Chronicle of Higher Education article on why some colleges are passing on the opportunity to pair with well-known MOOC organizations like edX and Coursera.

Daphne Koller from Coursera came to Northeastern University in April to talk about her company and the potential of online education.

About Peter Stokes

Peter Stokes, PhD, is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University. As a commentator, public speaker, and advisor to a variety of educational organizations, Peter has been a longstanding contributor to debates about higher education public policy at the federal and the state level.


  1. Neenah Estrella-Luna

    My husband took 3 courses with Coursera while on sabbatical this year. There was wide variation in quality. This variation, however, doesn’t strike me as any different than the variation in quality found in the traditional classroom environment.

    At the same time, we both learned about different (at least for us) approaches in online learning that have turned out to be quite useful. One of the challenges, however, that I see to utilizing the more effective techniques is that they require either more resources than many universities provide or a level of technical capacity (and time) than many faculty have.

    I think the value of Coursera and the other MOOCs is that they can demonstrate the universe of possibilities for what good online learning could look like. I think they also challenge our institutions to provide the resources (especially the time and technical support) to actually creating and implementing a good course.

  2. nice article your videos very interesting..

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