Despite the massive media ink spilled over massive open online courses, the ink spilled by MOOCs themselves remains red. MOOCs lose money. Most are free. Universities and venture capitalists subsidize them while searching for the class of the future.
So far nothing new. Complaints about the lack of viable business models for MOOCs are probably as old as MOOCs themselves, xMOOCs that is. However, what sets this article apart is the systematic way in which it approaches the issue. Dellarocas and Van Alstyn discern two different kinds of revenue streams, by charging for things and by charging people. However, when charging for things, it is not the product itself that carries the price tag, after all that is free, but complements or add-ons. Thus, one could charge for providing student data ('analytics'), or for certification or tutoring services. When charging people, it is not the MOOC learners themselves that have to pay - again, the product is free - but others whose interests somehow depend on the students. So, prospective employers could be asked to pay for data on students to inform their recruitment (again, analytics), companies could sponsor courses, or universities could share the development cost of courses. This last idea of course sits at the core of the OER movement, something which the authors entirely seem to miss as they insist on calling it content syndication, not even mentioning OERs. However, the idea is clear.
These two kinds of revenue streams constitute two dimensions of a matrix, the cells of which represent equally many business models, at least so the authors claim. Indeed, they solicit the help of the readers actually to fill all the cells, they themselves have been able to do so for 13 out of 20, some of which I mentioned in the above. Their most interesting ideas are collaborative group learning, where groups of learners self-organise and commit to learning, and problem-sponsored learning, where interested organisations sponsor student projects to solve some problem they experience. Collaborative group learning comes very close to what cMOOCS attempt to achieve in the online realm (again, not mentioned), which more generally is called networked learning. Problem-sponsored learning is very much akin to some work I myself was involved in, which we dubbed the virtual company (Westera & Sloep, 1998). Students would work in distributed groups on authentic assignments collected from interested organisations. Although these organisations did not pay up front, they had to make people available for fine-tuning their question, for identifying experts to be consulted, and for providing input into the assessments.
These and the other models discussed are useful contributions to the MOOC discussion. However, for me, their value does not lie in their ability to inform business models. As the two examples I discussed in a little more detail show, their value lies in prodding us tho think about different pedagogies than the tried and tested one of lecturing in front of a class. And yes, this needs to be paid for somehow, but whether education should be a public good or something that is subject to the laws of share-holder capitalism had better be discussed on its own merits than under the pretence of business models. (@pbsloep)
Westera, W., & Sloep, P. B. (1998). The Virtual Company: Toward a Self-Directed, Competence-Based Learning Environment in Distance Education. Educational Technology, 38(1), 32–37. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/nf7g2w