Burck Smith, chief executive of StraighterLine, which sells low-price online courses, contends that MOOCs are overhyped. He said universities that give their product away are likely to face challenges similar to those newspapers confronted when they launched open-access Web sites.
“Free content has never really been a successful business model,” Smith said.
But it is alluring. Jablonska, 26, a college biophysics instructor, read about Coursera through a Polish news outlet. “It gives me an opportunity to learn from the best,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The courses are provided by renowned universities and this allows me to compare my education to [what is] provided by them.”
Hijazi, 23, a digital-marketing consultant in Beirut, signed up for dozens of MOOCs.
“It helps you meet people from all around the world and actually gives meaning to the term ‘global classroom,’ ” Hijazi wrote, “where tens of thousands of students from all countries work together and get to know each other.”
In Silicon Valley, Baron, 52, is taking Caffo’s course with a daughter who lives in Oregon. Sometimes he listens to lectures on a plane or in a hotel.
“I can take a course on a whim and drop it if I find I don’t like it or can’t keep up,” Baron wrote. “There’s no threat of a bad grade dragging down my GPA. In fact, I really don’t care about my grades at all. ”
Giving it away
Coursera offers about 200 courses on topics from artificial intelligence to modern poetry. As of mid-October, the eight Johns Hopkins public-health courses on Coursera had drawn more than 170,000 students.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why do you give it away for free?’ ” said Michael Klag, dean of the university’s public-health school. “The reason, of course, is it’s consistent with our mission.” Also, he said, “it does build our brand.”
It is unclear how much Coursera students actually study. Ng estimates that 40 to 60 percent of those who register in a typical course might attempt the first assignment. Perhaps 10 to 15 percent might finish all the work.
Several weeks into his course, Caffo said about half of his students had watched at least one video. About 18 percent had taken at least one quiz. Hijazi had moved on, drawn to other MOOCs on “gamification” and “securing digital democracy.”
A biostatistician whose research analyzes data related to brain disorders and diseases, Caffo spends a few hours a week on the Coursera class, recording lectures in the school’s basement and giving feedback to online discussions. The course, which requires proficiency in calculus, teaches students about probability modeling in medical sciences. Lectures, from six to 32 minutes long, cover such topics as conditional probability, random variables and confidence intervals.