According to the BBC the University of Edinburgh has signed up over 200,000 students for its Coursera online courses that launch in the New Year. You might ask how can the university provide any sort of support to these numbersa of students for no revenue? The answer is “they won’t”. But the university is happy to sign these courses up under the banner “Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free”. If you query the apparent gap between the marketing and the reality of the courses you either get the response “that’s just marketing” or the more pedagogically considered response that direct contact with students and between students is a total waste of time, an anchronism that will go the way of lift attendants. In their different ways both of these anwers pose strategic risks. When it comes to publication of perceived quality failures, large organisations with large numbers of disgruntled customers make for good copy. How will the Principal or one of his henchpersons respond to being dragged out into the light blinking and confronted by Anne Robinson asking them whether they really think their Coursera courses are “the world’s best courses”?
Arguing that it is all just marketing and any sane student would realise that the courses are not really the equivalent of face-to-face courses exposes the university to risks of reputational damage, but the more interesting interpretation is that, yes, the university believe that these courses are “the world’s best”. Assuming this really is the university’s policy obviates the risk of accusing the University of bad faith, but makes this a fascinating example of potentially disruptive innovation. In arguing that MOOCs are as good as their traditional courses the university are arguing against their core business model, which is based on expensive lecturing, tutoring, feedback and assessment. They would be claiming that this cannot just be replaced by, but be bettered by, getting students to sit through online lectures and complete peer reviewed assessments.
Coursera describe themselves (https://www.coursera.org/about) as “a social entrepreneurship company” . “Social entrepreneurship”, in the sense of not-for-profit initiatives to tackle social needs, is one of those concepts that has progressively had its meaning sucked out of it. Coursera is a for-profit corporation backed by venture capital funds expecting that at some point in the future it will make them a profit. Coursera are not necessarily funded by people who wake up at 3am woryting about whether the world’s horses are getting enough roughage. In supporting Coursera, universities are arguing that the services they currently charge thousands of pounds for can be delivered for free and are encouraging the emergence of a for-profit intermediary between themselves and the learner.
The university can argue that, like a confectionary firm testing a new chocolate bar, they are exploring the market to learn about MOOCs, but when a sweetie firm test a new product it usually doesn’t involve arguing that their current products are over-priced.