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As Coursera tweaks its business model to find a financially viable way to offer massive open online courses, critics say its MOOCs are becoming less open and less like courses.

Coursera last week announced the release of dozens of new courses and course sequences, which it calls Specializations, in subjects ranging from career brand management to creative writing. But many of the new MOOCs came with a new barrier to enrollment. To sign up for Michigan State University’s How to Start Your Own Business, for example, budding entrepreneurs have to pay $79 up front for the first of five courses in the Specialization or prepay $474 for the entire program.

When enrolling in a MOOC on Coursera, learners are normally met with a box asking them if they would like to take it free -- giving them access to all the course materials but not awarding a certificate upon completion -- or pay $49 for an identity-verified course certificate provided upon completion. Learners can first pick the free option but change their minds later, however.

“You can sign up to earn a course certificate anytime -- even after you’ve started a course,” Coursera explains on its website. “Once signed up, you’ll quickly verify your identity each time you submit an assignment. Verifying your work is free, and you can choose to pay for the certificate whenever you’re ready.”

In the new MOOCs that charge up front, learners who choose not to pay are free to “explore,” Coursera said in a blog post. That means they get access to course materials such as video lectures, discussion boards and practice quizzes, but view-only access to graded assignments. To turn the course materials into an actual course, learners have to pay.

As Coursera last year announced new capstone projects created in partnership with private-sector companies, CEO Rick Levin told Inside Higher Ed that Specializations were an important part of the company developing a sustainable business model. In last week’s blog post, Coursera indicated that financial reasons are behind its decision to charge some learners up front.

“We are on a mission to change the world by providing universal access to the best learning experience,” the post reads. “To do this, we also need to have a business model that supports our platform, our partners, our content and everything we do for learners. The changes that we are making this year will move us toward sustainability and enable continued investment in our learning experience, without compromising our commitment to transforming lives for people around the world.”

Mission and Model

Coursera’s mission is straightforward: “We provide universal access to the world’s best education.” MOOC critics and researchers, however, questioned whether Coursera’s mission and evolving business model can mix.

The education writer Audrey Watters called the shift “significant,” but also “inevitable.” In an email, she pointed out that Coursera has needed to develop a business model that satisfies its investors -- “although I’m not fully convinced that this move will be it,” she added.

Coursera has raised $146.1 million from investors, according to CrunchBase.

Watters also said it is “striking” how strongly MOOC providers have believed their certificates would become recognized credentials, either for educational or work-related purposes.

“As these companies have been so wrapped up in the narrative that college isn’t ‘worth it,’ I think they have overestimated the value of their offerings,” Watters wrote. “It helped, no doubt, when they could connect this value to the ideals of ‘free’ and ‘open.’”

George Siemens, who leads the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, said in an email that he respects Coursera’s need to cover costs, but added that the company is “playing a short-term venture capital game” instead of focusing on the larger goal of improving access to education.

“It is dismaying to see the so-called Silicon Valley ‘hypesters’ and geniuses failing to deliver on promised change,” wrote Siemens, who previously helped organize the MOOC Research Initiative, a research grant project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The deep pool of a visionary and re-architected future ended up being about as thick as a dollar bill.”

Other researchers said they see Coursera’s announcement as an example of the for-profit and nonprofit segments of the MOOC market more clearly distinguishing themselves.

“It's a moment where it's great that we have both commercial and nonprofit providers,” Justin Reich, a MOOC researcher who serves as executive director of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email. “The general thesis of the commercial providers is that having people motivated by the potential for substantial profit will lead to better products and ultimately a better service of the public good. The thesis of nonprofits is that they'll be able to more squarely focus on the public good without the obligation to maximize shareholder value.”

Reich said his “heart is with the nonprofit solutions,” but added that “it's worth having commercial options trying to prove the viability of their approach.”

MIT, in partnership with Harvard University, in 2012 founded the MOOC provider edX. The company rarely misses an opportunity to point out that it is a nonprofit. In an email, an edX spokesperson said, “We have no plans to offer courses without a free option.” EdX has, however, begun experimenting with programs where learners who complete MOOCs can pay to receive academic credit. It also does not count its pay-only professional education courses among its MOOCs, the spokesperson said.

Regardless of whether the platforms are profit driven or not, MOOCs present questions about the experiences of learners who can pay versus those who can’t, Reich said. He predicted both sectors will pursue a business model where premium features are locked behind a paywall.

“It raises real questions about issues of equity,” Reich wrote. “Financial aid has the potential to ameliorate these concerns, but there are very serious concerns about equity in MOOCs in general.”

As it announced the enrollment changes, Coursera stressed its financial aid program, which covers 100 percent of the cost of taking a MOOC. A spokesperson for Coursera said the MOOC provider approved over 100,000 applications last year, 60 percent of which came from learners in developing countries. Applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the spokesperson said.

“Coursera's core mission remains to provide access to the world's best learning experience to anyone, anywhere,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to offer a completely free experience for learners who simply want to explore course videos, discussions and ungraded assignments.”

Coursera’s shift resembles the trajectory of another MOOC provider out of Stanford University: Udacity. In 2013, the founder and CEO, Sebastian Thrun, announced the start-up would shift away from free online education to focus on paid vocational programs. Udacity has since invested in building microcredential programs known as nanodegrees -- many of them in computer science -- with industry partners such as AT&T and Google.

Asked if Coursera’s announcement validates Udacity’s pivot, Thrun said, “Things always evolve in Silicon Valley.”

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