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Opinion: How The MOOC Became A Cash Cow For Business Schools

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not so ‘open’ anymore and business schools are reaping the rewards, says BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis

Wed Mar 21 2018

I took a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) once.

Available on leading MOOC platform Coursera, Building Your Leadership Skills was created by French Grande École HEC Paris and is taught by experienced associate professor Valérie Gauthier.

The course requires a time commitment of three weeks, two-to-four hours per week. Doable, I thought.

I clicked through. It was a few weeks into the new year and those resolutions were still fresh in my mind. I transitioned from the sofa to my IKEA work desk, determined to use my free evening productively—two hours of unfettered personal development.

A MOOC too far

I started the course and the content was good—really good. This stuff was gold dust! I was tapping into real insight from leadership experts at one of the world’s top-ranked business schools.

With this MOOC, I was reinventing myself professionally. I’d soon develop into a knowledgeable, compassionate, heroic leader, admired and respected by my peers.

A week later, I quit. I googled what I wanted to know.

Was I an abject failure, incapable of setting time aside for a few weeks of top-tier training? Was I unable to apply myself to study without real human interaction? Did I just want to meet someone and shake someone’s hand?

At least I knew I wasn’t alone. Coursera boasts 2,000 courses and 25 million learners on its platform. Yet reported average completion rates for MOOCs are as low as 5%.

As a method of measuring a course’s success, the completion rate statistic is flawed. In a 2016 blog post, Donald Clark—edtech entrepreneur and a professor at the University of Derby—notes: “It is a category mistake to describe people who stop at some point in a MOOC as ‘dropouts’. This is the language of institutions. People drop out of institutions not open, free and online experiences.”

He refers to a survey of students on the University of Derby’s ‘Dementia’ MOOC, where 33% (258 out of 775) of online learners stated that they ‘did not intend to complete’ the course and 26% didn’t engage with the course at all. Donald Clark calls these the “window-shoppers.”

Like many MOOC-takers, I was a window-shopper. Rather than the leadership course content, I was more interested in finding out about the MOOC student experience itself and what a top-ranked school like HEC Paris had to offer.

And, through the glass, behind the counter at the back of the shop, the business school was lying in wait.



When MOOCs first broke onto the scene, business schools were understandably wary. Would people still pay for business education when you can get it online for free?

Business schools started releasing their own MOOCs—for brand awareness; to reach new audiences; to highlight their areas of expertise; and for cold hard cash.

In 2017, 78 million students took 9,400 MOOCs from over 800 universities worldwide, according to MOOC search engine Class Central. But today, few MOOCs are actually free. Many work on a ‘freemium’ model, where participants pay to get certification or credit for completing the course.

And with huge numbers taking MOOCs, even low-cost courses can generate a solid return. According to a recent University Affairs article, Johns Hopkins University has pulled in over $3 million from its Data Science Specialization course on Coursera alone.

When I took my HEC Paris MOOC on Coursera—part of a free trial with the MOOC provider—a checkbox repeatedly came up, reading: Yes, I’d like to receive emails about other programs from HEC Paris.

The reviews of the course are overwhelmingly positive. ‘Great course for personal development and leadership!’ ‘Inspiring new concepts.’ ‘Thoughtful material.’ It’s rated 4.5 out of 5.

Yet one of the latest reviews is more telling: ‘The content is good,’ it reads, ‘but I feel that there's a lot of promotional stuff in there—by that I mean promotion of the program, of the university. It feels sometimes like an infomercial for the university and not a course.’

Business schools are constantly on the search for new applicant lead generation tools. In a BusinessBecause article I wrote last year, an HEC Paris representative noted a clear correlation between people who take HEC Paris-sponsored MOOCs—the window-shoppers—who then go on to take paid-for programs at the school.

Spain’s IE Business School, which surveyed 140 of its successful MOOC-takers and found that 72% said they were more likely to enroll in paid-for programs at IE having taken an IE MOOC. These were post-grad education target market individuals too: between 25 and 34 years old.

“We are realizing that the vast reach of MOOCs makes them a powerful gateway to degrees.” The words of Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. If you’re not already paying for your MOOC, business schools want you on their paid-for programs.


No more freebies

Although the global MOOCs market is predicted to grow by more than 30% annually between 2018 and 2022—according to market research firm Technavio—the freebie days are over.

This month, Coursera announced the launch of six new online degrees in partnership with universities, including its first ever bachelor’s program.

Coursera now offers 10 paid-for degrees, to complement its 2,000-plus courses, which cost less than traditional b-school programs, but have the potential to attract far more participants. The new computer science bachelor’s degree offered by University of London will cost $13,000-to-$24,000. There are plans for 3,000 students to take the degree.

Coursera, which boasts 149 partner universities, offers an Online Master's in Innovation and Entrepreneurship in partnership with HEC Paris. It’s home to the world’s first ‘open’ online MBA, offered in partnership with the University of Illinois, which costs $22,000. These degrees are based on the same curriculum and delivered by the same faculty as their on-campus equivalents.

In late 2017, Udacity VP Clarissa Shen declared that MOOCs were “dead.”

The MOOC, in its original form, is under threat. Resuscitated, remodeled, exploited by business schools, what we may refer to as MOOCs today are less open and more affordable online courses.

MOOC providers like Coursera have evolved—or devolved—into traditional online program management (OPM) providers. And business schools are reaping the rewards.