MOOCs – Is there a Real Degree Here?

Disclaimer:  I am for on-line learning, unequivocally.

Someone help me out here:  MOOCs are free, and no credit.  Somewhere in the back of my head, I can hear one of my teachers saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.  And suddenly Ng has 40 people working for him, how does he pay them?  Why is this business model working?  When it failed so miserably before … what has changed? Expectations?

MOOC CIRCA 2001
Remember the multi-university online consortium known as Fathom at Columbia University. Donald MacLeod boasted in The Guardian: “

Fathom was “Set up by Columbia University in alliance with 13 partners, including the London School of Economics, Fathom offers lifelong learning and professional development online. The member institutions include Cambridge University Press, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the American Film Institute, RAND, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum . With these huge storehouses of knowledge on tap and providing a lot of material on the site for free, Fathom aims to attract people to pay for distance learning”.

This is not the Fathom of 2001 – but if it had been, they’d be making money.

MOOC EULOGY CIRCA 2003
Yet two years later In the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, January 2003, “Columbia University announced plans last week to close its for-profit online-learning venture, Fathom, from April 1st 2003.  After almost three years in operation, Fathom’s board voted to dissolve the company and reorganise the university’s digital media projects, citing failure to turn a profit and insufficient connections with Columbia’s core business as primary motivations.”

How can failure to turn a profit work again?  How can connections with core business be established? Is this the real Ivory Tower? A Fiber Optic Glass Tower? 

Help! Someone from the iSchool, the Business School, speak out — why? why? Is this Coursera model going to work? And why are so many Universities giving their content away?  Are they charging for it? Is someone exchanging money here?  Or Is Ng going to accredited courses and issue degrees that will be more digitally relevant than a REAL certificate?

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