What’s a MOOC Worth?

If you look at how we pay for college using the “per-credit” economic model I described yesterday (one that divides annual tuition by the number of courses taken per year to arrive at what we’ll pay for each credit in a traditional college environment), then we end up confronting some challenging questions.

For if we peg the value of each credit at $2000 (by dividing a modest $16,000 tuition by eight courses), we need to ask what people think they’re getting when they pay this price.

Two possibilities include:

  • The learning received in the course
  • One increment towards a degree (a document which supposedly provides financial and other benefits after college)

There is considerable evidence that learning alone cannot command anywhere near a four-figure sticker price.

While one can make the argument that the free price for MOOCs evolved from cultural and technological vs. purely economic factors (having come about during an era celebrating open software and open learning), the failure of AllLearn (an earlier experiment in bringing top-level university courses to the online masses) indicates that people interested in learning for the sake of learning are not interested in paying all that much for the privilege.

One could make the argument that services like The Teaching Company (which charges approximately $100-$300 list for their college-level recorded lecture in various formats) pegs the price for pure learning in the low three figures.  But if you look at their prevalent sale prices of under $100, this would indicate a more natural price for their courses well below list.  And if we were doing a more systematic economic analysis, it would be worth discovering how many of their “customers” (like me) will only take Great Courses classes they can obtain for free at the public library.

It should be noted that the aversion towards paying for learning does not apply to all disciplines.  For instance, in a discussion in a recent Degree of Freedom newsletter, I noted that I’ve happily shelled out $30 per month to subscribe to Lynda.COM, a service that provides video tutorials on a wide range of technological products (including all of the software used to power this site).

And moving past personal and anecdotal evidence, I find it telling that at the Udemy.com open learning site, fewer than 1000 people have been willing to shell out $10 to learn Greek history, while close to 35,000 have paid $99 to learn Excel.

Perhaps this is telling us that while many of us are happy to take advantage of free high-quality learning resources to advance ourselves intellectually, we are only ready to pay for such learning if we can see a direct financial or professional benefit of doing so.

Another piece of evidence comes from the world of certification and licensure where people not only pay $200-$300 or more for an exam that will allow them to work in a specific industry, but can also spend  5-10 times that amount to obtain the training needed to pass the exam.  Added together, this pushes the cost of these professionally oriented educational opportunities into the four-figure range we saw when we looked at that price-per-credit from a degree-granting university.

It might seem ironic that a person ready to commit dozens or even hundreds of hours into a MOOC class (a pretty high price to pay if we use some conversion factor – even if it’s only minimum wage – to turn time into money) would likely balk at having to pay just a few dollars to enroll.

Perhaps we are entering an era when the availability of “open everything” makes us understandably reticent about paying for stuff we could get for free (any Movable Type paying users out there)?  Or perhaps the kind of reality checking associated with economics simply demonstrates that we are willing to do certain things with our money (like advance our careers) but other things with our time (like advancing our minds).

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6 Responses to What’s a MOOC Worth?

  1. Lisa S May 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Thanks for focussing on the numbers! Relatedly, I’d be curious to read your thoughts (at some point) about the open letter from the SJSU Philosophy Department explaining their refusal to count Michael Sandel’s course on Justice for credit. http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/138937/

    • DegreeofFreedom May 3, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      People have been sending me that story all day. I just wrote something about it in today’s blog entry.

  2. Robert McGuire May 3, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Good morning!

    A question and a comment:

    1. Either your arithmetic or your terminology in the 2nd paragraph lost me. In my use of “per credit,” your hypothetical tuition would translate into $500/credit in a 4-credit system or $666/credit in a 3-credit system. Could you clarify?

    2. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that a credit (or degree) alone doesn’t repay the sticker price, particularly for vast majority of students who go to noncompetitive schools. If students at those schools only put in the time to accumulate credits and don’t use the time well by building relationships, taking advantage of extended learning opportunities, producing work product that they can show outside of class and, in general, actually learning, the marketplace has been decreasingly willing to reward those students on the basis of the degree alone. The “signalling value” of a degree by itself is on the decline.


    • DegreeofFreedom May 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      Hi Robert – I’m using one credit to represent the equivalent of one full-semester course (and a half credit for a course that falls short of this), rather than playing with credit hours. It’s not perfectly reflective of some of the nuances that the credit hour system offers can provide, but it’s what I used when I first went to college (and it does make the math easier for analyses like this one).

  3. Jack January 11, 2015 at 6:35 pm #

    Can you tell me where the evidence from the world of certification specifically comes from? Thank you.

    • DegreeofFreedom January 12, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

      Evidence comes from a process called “validation” that takes different forms. “Content validation” uses the input of subject matter experts to determine if an assessment/certification contains the correct content and content balance to reflect the knowledge or skill being measured. “Construct validity” relates to the structure the assessment takes (for example, the construct behind the SAT is that vocabulary and math skills are predictive of college success).

      The cut (pass/fail) score for certification-level exams are usually determined via “Criterion Validation” studies which compare test scores to some other measure of performance. You can look up any of these validation types online, and please feel free to contact me via the Contact form if you’d like to talk further.

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