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Coursera Announces New Micropayments Allowing MOOC Students to Pay for Deadline Extensions

Written by Charlie Chung
5 minute read
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*****Below is our parody April Fool’s post. It is completely fictional.*****

Coursera_Pause Point_1
In its relentless quest to find a sustainable business Coursera is introducing a new feature called “Pause Points” that allows its MOOC students to extend assignment deadlines by up to three days, for a fee. Pause Points will be available for selected courses starting in May, with an initial price of $3.99 USD per point, or a pack of five for $17.99 USD (Bitcoin will also soon be accepted). Each point can be used to submit an assignment exactly 24 hours later with no penalty. You can use up to three per assignment, up to a maximum of 10 per course.

Coursera’s Andrew Ng notes that the purchase of Pause Points is optional, and describes the motivation behind them: “We believe that many students are at a disadvantage in completing courses due to outside circumstances, such as work, school, or family commitments. Pause Points offers them a way to not fall behind, and it levels the playing field, allowing online students to earn coveted Verified Certificates, and pursue valuable Specializations.”

Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, and teacher of the popular Coursera MOOC A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior commented: “This is a page taken straight out of behavioral economics. It is like an in-app purchase, when you offer a purchase occasion at a time when the buyer’s demand curve is highly inelastic. Brilliant!”  Thomas Friedman, New York Times Op Ed Columnist, and author of The World is Flat, gushed, “It’s a valuable new service, and addresses a large group whose needs are often overlooked: those with unreliable internet connections, who are in many underdeveloped parts of the world (as well as at Starbucks during the afternoon rush). Plus, the larger lesson it teaches is that one’s own time is valuable, and in some cases it should be traded off with money. That’s a whole new mindset for four-fifths of the world.”

But not all reactions to this new paid feature were positive. Stephen Downes, one of the initiators of the first MOOC (held in 2008), writes on his blog: “This is typical for a venture-backed company, grasping to find promised business models, and when they don’t materialize, resorting to a ‘permits and fines’ approach in a desperate attempt to prove that the (elusive) business models still exist.” Audrey Watters, of the popular Hack Education blog, tweeted Stephen’s quote 20 minutes later, noting “I agree with Stephen.” Later, she wrote a post condemning the new feature at length: “This is exploitation of the crassest order. You’re going to give students with more economic means a way to pay for more time? What’s next, quiz hints for $5 each? A bump in the final exam score for $100? This has to end, or these MOOC providers will be like the mob, demanding protection money just to have a shot at a fair education.” Beyond the colorful hyperbole, these critiques do raise important points about social justice.

We presented these posts to Coursera and asked for their response. Daphne Koeller was unavailable for comment, per her assistant who said she was ‘in the tank’ preparing for an upcoming new TED Talk. Andrew Ng did give a brief reply via email: “We are sensitive to issues of equity and recognize that students have differing abilities to pay. But our platform generates a great deal of data which can help us to be more equitable. We are applying a combination of supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms to the data we have about students within the Coursera platform, and we will be able to estimate, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the socioeconomic status of our students. Based on this, we can use a sliding pricing scale, where students will pay according to their means. This is just one example of how we can use the data we collect to provide a level playing field for educational access.”

As with most major features, when one major MOOC platform offers something, the others follow, and this is the case for Pause Points as well. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, talked about their plans in a phone interview while in Sierra Leone, where he was visiting to announce a partnership with the Ministry of Education. Below is a partial transcript of his comments:

“edX is a nonprofit organization—I mean, even though we need to generate revenue to be sustainable, we often take a slightly different approach. We’re planning a way to offer assignment delay credits, and these can be purchased for some fee, okay. But, we will also have ways to earn these credits for free, for doing things like participating in discussion boards, making good comments, and doing extra credit. Then you can draw on these credits to delay a deadline. This aspect about earning credits is based on a concept called ‘gamification’—I just learned that term last week! I’ve been using the concept since my kids were born, but I only now learned that it is a whole new field…! Anyway, anyone can earn them—the credits I mean, regardless of their ability to pay, and then they can apply them when they need it. So they ‘play’, then they can ‘delay’—we call it ‘play for delay’. Or they can ‘pay for delay’, it’s up to them. We’ll be announcing something soon…”

Thus, like with many things regarding MOOCs, we see mixed and heated reactions. Critics see this feature as taking advantage of students in a moment of desperation, giving unfair advantage to the wealthy. The proponents, meanwhile see this feature as leveling the playing field in a different way—after all, why should those who are busy be at an unfair advantage in taking MOOCs? What do you think? Feel free to offer comments below with your thoughts.

 

April 1, 2014