“The real question is, if you start to get very good online MOOCs, why do you need a university?” said Joseph A. Burns, dean of faculty at Cornell University. “And what does an Ivy League university bring to the table? What do you give to students that they can’t get sitting at home and eating potato chips?” The campus ideal, he said, “of a teacher and five students crowded around their feet on a sunny lawn or something like that — that’s gone.
Burns predicted that Cornell will join the MOOC movement. Some distinguished professors, he said, are fired up about the prospect of teaching 100,000 students instead of 20.
Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, said his school will hold off for now. He worries about quality control. “It’s like teaching a stadium,” Knapp said. “You could teach a lecture course in a stadium, but how engaged would the students be sitting in the top row?”
U-Va. joined Coursera in July, a few weeks after its president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was forced to quit and then rehired. During the upheaval, Sullivan’s critics said that she was not moving fast enough to put U-Va. at the forefront of digital innovation. The university’s participation in MOOCs helped Sullivan rebut them.
Colleges have forged rapidly into online education since the 1990s. Every year, legions of tuition-paying students earn degrees online from such schools as Liberty University in Virginia, University of Maryland University College and many others.
Exactly how MOOC platforms will make money without charging tuition remains to be seen. There is talk of selling branded certificates to students who pass a course. Another idea is to provide job-placement services.
“Quite a few employers have contacted us, unsolicited, asking to hire our top students,” said Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford University computer scientist. He said companies seem willing to pay for recruiting help. With student consent, Ng said, Coursera has begun making introductions to a few employers.
The company also has struck a deal with Antioch University, based in Ohio, that will enable tuition-paying students to take Coursera courses for credit at that school.
Still, Ng said, Coursera has so far generated almost no revenue. It is relying on venture capital. “Right now, we are more focused on getting the product right first than in monetizing,” Ng said.
For universities, MOOCs deliver worldwide exposure now and offer the possibility of cash flow in the future. Contracts with Coursera indicate that 6 to 15 percent of gross revenue from a given course, plus an additional share of profit, would go to the partner schools. Universities are responsible for the upfront costs of producing their courses.