Online education programs are one of the most exciting trends in higher education today. Here at Via Meadia we’ve been closely following new programs like Coursera and EdX, which provide university-level classes from respected schools to anyone with an internet connection, all for free. Yet for all the excitement, we still wonder: How does a program dedicated to providing free content make money?A new contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan may be the beginning of an answer to that question. In addition to the usual revenue sources for online programming (advertisments, sponsorships, and usage fees), Coursera is looking for ways to deliver premium content for a price. This added level of content could include paid, in-person tutoring sessions to complement online coursework, certification for successful completion of courses, and in-person testing, which would make cheating more difficult and testing more rigorous. Coursera may even roll out a program to connect students with potential employers. GigaOm reports:
One option seems to be a recruitment program in which students opt-in to receive in-platform messages and opportunities from employers who have found them through the site. Another scenario involves letting an employer evaluate the performance of Coursera students by inviting them to take an exam or other assessments at the employer’s office.
Coursera, and online education more broadly, seem to be moving toward a hybrid model that mixes online, individual coursework with occasional tutoring sessions.It’s going to take some trial and error before we learn what online ed can and can’t do well and how it can deliver more education more conveniently at a better price. Universities will have to fight the temptation to see online courses as a low cost revenue stream that can subsidize the inefficiencies elsewhere in the system; this is like a legacy newspaper trying to earn enough money from digital subscriptions to avoid changing its basic business model.Coursera may or may not come up with the killer app that makes online education an indispensable part of future of higher ed, but it’s a strong early effort and we wish it all the best.