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By now we know that MOOCs are not the final answer. Higher education will not be saved (or destroyed) by these massive open online courses that splashed into everyone’s consciousness about three years ago. Yes, they provide some fascinating opportunities for expanding access to higher education, for helping us to rethink how teaching and learning works, and for revitalizing the debate about the role of faculty and the power (or futility) of going to college. But most pundits and educators have moved on to the next shiny new fad.

This is a mistake.

For underneath and behind the scenes, much progress continues to be made.* In fact, I would suggest that it is only now – after three frustrating years where expectations were raised way too high and subsequently plummeted way too low – are we starting to see the real opportunities.

This can be seen in the recent announcement by MIT that one of its popular MOOCs (on philosophy) will introduce “instructor grading.” As the press release proclaims, “having a trained philosopher [will] provide individual feedback [which] is crucial to knowing how much of the material was truly understood. That engagement is an essential part of the pedagogical experience — just not one learners from Boston to Bangladesh can typically experience together.”

This is a fascinating development. By now it is crystal clear that MOOCs cannot be compared to traditional courses. Yes, they may replace and/or supplement existing courses, but they are fundamentally different. And that difference is exactly the kind of interactivity – of engagement, feedback, grading – that is at the heart of the give and take of deep learning in higher education. Without such engagement, MOOCs might as well be (and have been compared to) the correspondence courses of the 1800s or your local public radio or TV station. It’s just information transfer; not true knowledge development.

Until now the MOOC world has created multiple workarounds attempting to get around this more or less impassable obstacle of one of the foundational aspects of a course. The simplest solution, of course, was just to pretend that such feedback and engagement were not truly relevant to something being a course. But such a perspective, and pundit-fueled euphoria, was short-lived. More plausible solutions have included everything from automated assessment to competency-based education to differing permutations of peer feedback. But each of these solutions has always been dogged (not fairly in some cases) by the seeming lack of quality of such engagement.

This is where MIT’s announcement enters the picture. Their solution – of using “professional philosophers” – solves the really important problem of the seeming lack of quality. This solution appears simple and obvious, but until recently it did not seem plausible to do so on the massive scale of MOOCs, not least because of the costs involved. So what MIT has nicely done is connect this solution to their certificate program – which will cost $300 – such that students can, according to their website, “verify your achievement and increase your job prospects.” 

So let’s do the math.

First the revenue. While MOOC enrollment numbers are all over the map, MIT’s own data seems to suggest that about 40,000 students enroll in typical humanities classes and that somewhere between two to ten percent of those enrollees will ultimately get a certificate. If we err on the conservative side, let’s say that 1,000 students will take advantage of this new opportunity. (This matches with other such MOOCs, and, as you will see below in a moment, aligns nicely with the back-end revenue implications.) At $300 per certificate, that’s a revenue stream of $300,000 for a single course.

Now let’s get to the expenses: If we assume that a student writes four papers in a philosophy class (which appears about right if one goes off another syllabus that the professor of this MOOC has taught), and that a regular class has twenty students, that’s a total of 80 papers that need to get graded in a class by a single professor. Now, a “professional philosopher” is, I assume, an adjunct or one of MIT’s own full-time faculty teaching an overload. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, an adjunct teaching in the humanities at MIT makes about $7,500. But, remember, all that the philosopher will have to do is grade papers. As the course website points out, “If you choose to pursue a verified certificate, a professional philosopher will carefully read, grade and comment upon your work.” There’s no course preparation, no lecturing, no office hours. So let’s say that a professional philosopher will be assigned to grade 160 papers, or double a regular load. As the saying goes amongst faculty, we teach for free but get paid for grading.

So what that means is that you’ll need twenty five professional philosophers to grade every paper for those one thousand students paying for their certificates. That’s a total expense of $187,500. Even if we assume a partial salary for a “project manager” of some kind (someone has to find these adjuncts, coordinate the process, field questions and complaints, etc.), that still leaves a nice $100,000 in profit.

That, it seems to me, is the start of a really nice business model.

To be clear, I am not advocating that this particular solution should be the path forward for MOOCs or higher education. There are lots of thorny issues about the value and function of higher education that this blog post does not even attempt to touch.

All I’m pointing out is that MITx has solved a real problem in the MOOC world – of quality feedback and engagement – and has done so in a way that sustains the ability to scale. This is not, for me at least, the end all and be all of what I think of as the MOOC 2.0 vision for higher education. But it is certainly a step closer.

*Disclaimer: I have been a visiting scientist at MIT as well as served as an external advisory member on several task forces that explored issues of online learning.

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.

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