Saturday, August 12, 2017

ARE MOOCs STILL FREE OF CHARGE? The key issues and how to address them


Many are wondering whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are still free of charge.  This curiosity comes from some of the headlines we have recently seen. Including:
·         Top MOOC provider edX no longer free for all1 
·         MOOCs still open but no longer free - The Australian2   
·         Free MOOCs? Forget about it3  
·         Is Coursera individual classes no longer free? – reddit4  
·         Are Coursera courses not free any more?5   
·         Massive Open Online Courses used to be 100% free. But they didn’t stay that way6 and
·         The Golden Age of MOOCs is over and Why I hate Coursera7  


Dhawal Shah, the Founder of (claiming to be the most popular online course search engine) explains what is happening.  In 2011 he took one of the first MOOCs  and remembered that back then, everything was 100% free of charge.  The videos, the assignments, and the certificates. However, he pointed out that  in 2017,  a student cannot find this sort of free learning experience.

He explained that as MOOC providers searched for a favorable business model, they started putting certain aspects of the MOOC experience behind a paywall. As a result, MOOCs went from “free” to “free to audit” where students auditing courses have access to course videos and other materials but not the assignments and certificates.

Free certificates were the first items to be shifted from “free of charge” to “charged.”  Then the graded assignments were put behind paywalls.  Now all the major MOOC providers are making courses that are charging student, with even video lectures locked away behind paywalls.  However, this does not mean that all their courses need to be purchased. 


Shah explained that the situation with the four biggest MOOC providers is as follows:

Current Situation at EdX6 
·         Still offering graded assignments free of charge;
·         Offers certain courses (which they call Professional Education) at a cost.  These typically cost hundreds of dollars;
·         Apart from Professional Education, all the edX courses are completely complimentary, and students only need to purchase the course if they want to receive a certificate.

Current Situation at Coursera6    
·         Certificates and graded assignments are not free of charge;
·         For students who want to access course videos at no charge, they need to find and click on a tiny “audit” link (which has been designed intentional to be difficult to locate);
·          Courses that are not part of a series (specialization) will sometimes have the option to sign up for an audit mode.  In these cases, graded assignments are of no charge to participate, but students still do not have access to free of charge certificates;
·         Cousera had a liberal financial-aid policy for a long time. It now takes them at least 15 days to respond to financial aid applications.

Current Situation at FutureLearn6   
·         Students have access to course materials at no charge(articles/ videos/ peer review steps) but this special is only available for the duration of the course and two weeks after it ends.  For unlimited access to the course materials, students are required  to upgrade for a costs of $30 to $90;
·         However, all students (complimentary and upgrades) still have access to quizzes and assignments;
·         Only the upgrades have access to tests, and a Certificate of Achievement when students complete their course.

Current Situation at Udacity6 
Udacity offers “nanodegrees” which can take months to finish, and they usually consist of online courses, human-graded projects, and some mentorship.
·         The courses that are part of Nanodegree could usually be taken free of charge;
·         However, getting the certificate requires payment.


The Key Issues

In my readings in preparation for this posting, I find two main issues behind the trend to reduce free service offerings: 1) the need for economic survival, and 2) greed.  The need for economic survival is understandable, since offering of top quality courses to interested learners from around the world cannot be achieved with no or little financial backing. This has resulted in marriages of convenience between the technologists, educationists, and visionaries on one hand with the global corporate elite on the other. Someeg:7 argue that, of late, we have been seeing MOOC providers caring less about the students and more about the money.

The Solution

Firstly, it should be pointed out that, there are still a lot of positives out there.  For those interested in learning a subject, there are still many MOOCs topics that can be studied at no charge.  As it maybe true that it is made very difficult to find Cousera’s tiny “audit” button, and some may not know that “audit” means you are able to take the course at no cost, and it may take two weeks to get a response to a query regarding the need for financial assistance.  However, there are still some great opportunities out there.

In addition, we should try and:
·         involve more people who care more about students  and less about the money,
·         encourage searches for win-win models of service operations (rather than searching for purely alternative business models), and
·         promote in-person, on-line, and dual-mode mentoring/ tutoring/ coaching.

An Example: The McVay Youth Partnership at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota8

This example is from Education but not specifically on MOOC.  However, it is cited here because it employs all three elements mentioned above , it involves people who care more about students and less about the money; it involves a search (which lasted two years) to find a workable win-win model of operation, and it involves mentoring.

The McVay Youth Partnership at Hamline University offers paid leadership opportunities for students, who then mentor middle- and high-schoolers. The program was endowed by Pete and Mary McVay.  In a similar manner, people who care about students could volunteer or be requested to endow a program where tutors/mentors/coaches provide assistance to students doing MOOCs. This was especially  important to those from underprivileged backgrounds.  This approach will also help address what has been referred to (rightly or wrongly) as the greatest challenge for MOOCs which is the very low completion rate of only 4-6%.9    

It was reported10 in 2013, according to Coursera, more than 900 students have finished 10 or more Coursera MOOCs.  Today, some 4-5 years later, there should be quite a number of MOOCs experts out there who have taken five or more MOOCs from Cousera or other platforms. hopefully they are willing to be involved in sharing their MOOCs knowledge and expertise through tutoring.


To find free online courses and MOOCs, please click here



Posted by: Dr. Nat Tuivavalagi

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