MOOC as Courseware: Coursera’s Big Announcement in Context

Today’s big news is that Coursera, the largest of the MOOC providers, has signed with 10 public statewide systems. As described by Ry Rivard at Inside Higher Ed:

Universities from New Mexico to New York will join Coursera in a sprawling expansion of the Silicon Valley startup’s efforts to take online education to the masses.

Together, state systems and flagship universities in nine states will help the company test new business models and teaching methods and potentially put Coursera in competition with some of the ed tech industry’s most established players.

The push, which company and university officials previewed over the past several days, is not a single effort but several pilot projects with different goals. Some university leaders are unsure of the direction they are heading in, but the effort will create at least a temporary buffet of experimentation using Coursera’s online platform. A network of universities will be creating or using and buying or selling course material from each other, with Coursera in the middle as a content broker, consultant and host.

One key aspect of this announcement is Coursera’s full-fledged move into courseware as a new business line to complement their standalone courses. Courseware is the combination of “the curriculum, the course materials, the assessments and, in some cases, the analytics to track student progress and make study suggestions” as described in Michael’s post “MOOCs, Courseware, and the Course as an Artifact“. In essence, courseware is everything but the instructor and interactive discussion, certification and support. This is what is meant by “wrapping” around a MOOC.

As seen below, there are different levels of courseware, depending on whether learning objectives and a unifying navigation structure is included.


This Courseware space is being populated both by publishers and MOOC providers, and today’s news from Coursera further establishes this trend.

In his post, Michael listed some of the other examples of MOOC as Courseware.

On the other hand, there was widespread enthusiasm for using MOOCs as essentially substitutions for textbooks in classes that included instructors from the local campus. Vanderbilt created what they called a course “wrapper” around a Coursera MOOC on machine learning. Folks from Stanford talked about the notion of a “distributed flip,” i.e., a group of flipped classrooms participating together in a MOOC. And SJSU talked about using an edX course in a blended course environment on one hand, and a Udacity course with Udacity-provided “course mentors” on the other.

Mike Caufield has been calling out this trend for some time, and his post today ties together previous comments that help put the Coursera announcement in context.

Why would Coursera, Udacity and edX all move towards the Courseware space? I think there are three key issues

1) Moving away from the dominance of professional development and focusing more on higher education

Daphne Koller called out this motivation in the Huffington Post article:

“We noticed the vast majority of ours students were people who already had degrees and wanted to continue their education,” said Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. “We really wanted to move the needle on fundamental educational problems” of access and affordability. Because Coursera does not produce its own content or administer degree courses, “you have to work within the framework of the institutions that are actually good at that,” she said.

2) Finding a way to work with higher education institutions to give students credit for taking MOOCs

Without this partnership, MOOCs will continue to exist as professional development with no formal credit. Anya Kamenetz called this out in Fast Company.

Coursera is partnering with 10 major public flagship and state university systems, from the State University of New York to West Virginia University, that collectively enroll 1.25 million of the nation’s 21 million college students. Coursera’s existing university partnerships with schools like Stanford and Penn mainly involve professors creating and offering online courses to several million users on the platform. These new public partnerships, however, are aimed at using MOOCs to enhance teaching, learning, and collaboration not only for online students around the world, but also for students already physically attending classes at these universities, and high school students who hope to enroll there.

3) Finding a revenue model that doesn’t require charging MOOC students directly

As described by Inside Higher Ed (which includes short quote from me).

Some university officials say they see Coursera as a potential replacement for some services universities now receive from the makers of learning management systems. Others see Coursera’s online courses as this generation’s textbook. Because Coursera and university officials discussed the project in advance of an official public announcement on Thursday, many of those potentially affected — faculty groups, business competitors and others — did not have an opportunity to react. [snip]

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant, said Coursera’s announcement represented not just an expansion of colleges that partner with Coursera but an expansion of and change to the company’s business model.

“This could be an indication of the MOOC providers getting much more pressure from their venture capital investors and themselves that they need to find revenue models — and LMS is a revenue model,” Hill said, referring to the learning management systems market.

There are other interesting aspects of the Coursera announcement, but for now the rise of Courseware, from both publishers and MOOC providers, is proving to be one of the most important trends of 2013.

For more coverage on today’s announcement:

Update 5/30: Added language to clarify that this trend does not mean that MOOCs will only be Courseware, but rather that this is a second line of business to complement standalone courses. Also added link to NY Times article (how the heck did I miss that?).

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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7 Responses to MOOC as Courseware: Coursera’s Big Announcement in Context

  1. Joe McCarthy says:

    There is lots of good analysis here, but I don’t agree with the thesis that MOOCs are “everything but the instructor and interactive discussion, certification and support”.

    Lots of MOOCs are “taught” by world-class instructors; most have online interactive discussions; many offer some kind of certificate of completion (and though these currently fall short of the kinds of credentials offered by accredited institutions of higher education, the American RadioWorks episode on MOOC Recruiting suggests that MOOC certificates are starting to encroach on traditional credentials in the field of computer science), and support was an important component of the recent announcement of the alliance between Udacity and Georgia Tech.

    While it might be comforting – to many stakeholders in higher education – to think of MOOCs as merely / mostly courseware, I think the provision of top-notch content – in addition to framework(s) – is a significant qualitative difference, at least with respect to the online courseware I’ve encountered elsewhere.

    I’m sure there is financial pressure from VCs, but I [still] expect that MOOCs will be much more than courseware.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Joe, thanks for the comment, but I might not have been clear. It is courseware that is “everything but the instructor and interactive discussion, certification and support”. When MOOCs are repurposed as courseware (as opposed to MOOCs as standalone courses), the live teaching and interactive discussion from the teacher goes away.

    Likewise, the credentials from a MOOC do not really count for anything today; maybe they will in the future, and in that case the MOOC provided will not be courseware, it would be a course.

    The concept of “wrapping” around MOOC as courseware is that those key elements you mentioned will be provided by the institution (paying for and) using the courseware. The school will provide the instructor who interacts with students. The school will provide support (or contract it out, even back to the MOOC provider). The school will provide the credential or credit.

    I don’t see this as a situation of taking comfort in describing MOOCs as only courseware (at least for myself) – I’m describing what the MOOC providers themselves are doing. Now if MOOCs are courseware prove to be much better than other courseware, as you describe, then this will prove to be a very wise move by Coursera, Udacity and edX. They will be competing with publishers in a lucrative, growing market.

    Finally, I do not think that there is one “thing” as MOOC – this move really is adding a new type of MOOC. Standalone MOOCs will likely continue as you describe, but there is a new option available to schools now. BTW, I’m adding an update to the post to clarify this point, thanks for pointing it out.

    None of this is meant to be a criticism of MOOCs as courseware – it is rather a description.

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  7. here is my dream .
    See my blog 6 months ago .

    This is a revolution nade by Daphne and Ng .
    I do not like Coursera since they are for profits.
    But now I take my hat off in front of them. They are geniueses in convensing people .
    The price of $ 36 per course is also very fair . My calculations say $ 10-20 but it is OK .
    Now see what will hapen when a state school takes 5 online courses from Coursera .
    1.- Tuitions will be halved.
    2.- Quality will be increased due to elite schools courses
    3.- Graduates will be hired on the spot, when employers see that such and such courses were taken at caltech, Stanfor, Duke.
    4.- There will be 100 % more space at the school for new students
    5.- No need for loans and grants from State or Federals . After a while taxes will be dropped .
    6.- There are 200,000,000 global university astudents seeking degrees. They will get online degrees from New York University paying for 40 courses 40 x $ 36 = $ 1,440 that is the lowest price for a BA degree . Money will flow to NY .

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