If education were free, what would MOOCs be?

Here's a thought experiment, if there were no students fees and higher education were free, what would that do to MOOCs? I mean, obviously it'll never happen… oh, wait, Germany just abolished student fees. Yeah, but what do they know about running an economy, right?

So, on with our thought experiment. At the opposite ends of the spectrum we have two scenarios: It doesn't change a thing, as MOOCs are about a different form of learning; or it completely kills MOOCs as their main feature is that they are free.

Then there are some elements inbetween these two extremes:

  • MOOCs become more focused on niche subjects not served by higher education – many current MOOCs offer courses straight out of conventional curriculum, indeed if they want big numbers for monetisation then the curriculum becomes narrower. But in a free higher ed system MOOCs can fill some of the demand and gap not met by conventional curriculum. These would be offered by communities, societies, individuals for interest and maybe universities and commercial providers for professional development
  • MOOCs are outreach focused. While competition is lessened in a free HE system between universities, there is an increased pressure on them to perform social-good functions (since they're being paid for by the tax payer). MOOCs are a useful means of achieving this, with the emphasis now on open access, and less on shop window.
  • MOOCs offer a different granularity. Related to the above, the full 3 or 4 year degree is not for everyone, and MOOCs provide a means of offering smaller chunks of courses. There is less pressure on them to be a taster or freemium model for the full degree in a free system. They operate as smaller units of learning which may be aggregated, but may not, appealing to leisure learners and professional updating.
  • MOOCS are experimental. As with the current system there is room for MOOCs to act as a means of experimenting with technology, pedagogy or curriculum. This allows universities to trial approaches and learners to trial subjects, without impacting upon the core degree. The impetus to do this may be lessened in a free HE system however.

My guess is that in a society where higher education is freely available, then the commercial focus on MOOCs decreases. They are competing less directly with an expensive system, and their main selling point of being free is undermined. But I also suspect they wouldn't disappear. In fact, they end up being altogether more interesting I think, and other features about them come to the fore. And that probably tells us quite a lot about the current MOOC debate.


  1. Holden says:

    Also, possibly, MOOCs as support and community around traditional classes? Some portion of students from various sections of Bio 101 across the country become part of a Bio 101 MOOC that helps them supplement what they are getting in the classroom, or perhaps provides a degree of support for students for which the level of challenge is too high or too low.

  2. Houshuang says:

    In Norway, higher education is completely free. I think that currently, it actually makes very little difference, because virtually nobody are using MOOCs to replace degrees (this might happen in the future, and will of course be a different story, but still only pertains to a certain well-defined group). Most of the people taking MOOCs are either students who are complementing their current in-class studies, or checking out courses outside their majors, or people who long-since graduated school. If I sit down to watch some HCI videos, it isn’t because it would cost a certain amount of money to go back to school fulltime to study HCI. (And of course, even if school was free, time isn’t, and full-time studies will always be expensive – even with Scandinavia’s generous student-support systems).
    Of course, what one could perhaps expect is that those institutions were tuition is free, and were the institution has a mandate to serve the whole city, not just its students (for example, anyone in Oslo can get a library card at the University library), that these institutions would then go in the forefront of opening up resources, sharing videos, using open licenses, etc… Of course, that has not happened (partly because all their funding comes from the government for very clearly defined purposes, partly perhaps just because there is very little competition, “branding” etc)…

  3. Mdeimann says:

    Since you mentioned Germany, I feel free to add a few thoughts to your post. Students fees have been debated very hotly for a long time in Germany. I was fortunate to have my studies for free but now as I am working at the “other side” of the University, I experience the pressure with increasing student population while the amount of staff remains the same. My university is especially keen on reaching more and more students because it is good for the reputation.
    We are currently running one (x)MOOC and preparing a(c)MOOC and I know how much work and resources are needed to have a good product, i.e. not just a standard xMOOC. If the educational experience for the students are valuable I think it is justifiable to charge for this experience.
    By the way: We currently have a call for proposals for a “MOOC production fellowship” sponsored by the business community’s innovation agency for the German science system and a for-profit start-up (the German version of Coursera). Up to know, over 250 universities have applied to get one of ten fellowships with a budget of €25,000. The question is: What happens to those MOOC concepts that will not be funded? I think this will have an impact on the overall MOOC discussion in Germany.

  4. mweller says:

    @Holden – yes that’s a good model, the way Phonar and DS106 students benefit from their courses being open boundary has a solid pedagogic basis. I’m not sure if we’d see more or less of this, maybe more since the shift is away from profit as the main motivation.
    @Houshuang – thanks for the Norwegian perspective. I guess my post should be “what is US education were free” since much of the MOOC discussion and direction is being driven by the US, where the cost and comparison with formal education is a big factor.
    @Markus – thanks for commenting, I was hoping you’d see it :) I wonder if the conversation in Germany is less about commercial application of MOOCs then?

  5. Mdeimann says:

    The discussion has – so far – been less about commercial application of MOOC and more about experimenting with a new pedagogical format. For three years now, there have been a big cMOOC organized by a consortium of universities and e-learning organizations. Theses MOOCs were rather self-referential (MOOC about MOOC) and attracted always the same people. Now with the call for proposal and reports from mass media, more people are interested. Up to now, there is only 1 or 2 universities that have joined forces with Coursera. I wondering if there will be an increase after the MOOC production fellowship.

  6. Even if higher ed was tuition/fee free, they still would have admissions requirements and natural limits on how many students can be served, wouldn’t they? (In confess ignorance about how admissions work for German and Open Universities.) An important feature of MOOCs is the “open admission” aspect of the “(much contested) Open part of the model. I’m not even sure that it’s true that “free” is their most important feature. We’re already starting to see organizations talking about charging fees for their “MOOCs” and anticipating that they will still have massive numbers of students enrolling. The main feature is probably that they have low marginal costs, which means that they can be free or that the savings can be applied in other ways. The Georgia Tech computer science degree announced last week uses MOOCS, charges for them, plans to have 10,000 students in the program. The low marginal cost of providing the courses will be used to let anyone take them and win themselves admission into the program.
    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  7. mweller says:

    @Robert – I agree that if higher ed were free then this would have the effect of emphasising the open access part of MOOCs. But I think a lot of the current hype has centered around the free part, particularly as an alternative to costly higher education. The Georgia Tech course isn’t a MOOC, it’s a poorly supported elearning course, so I guess it depends what you mean by a MOOC.

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