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What do professors think of Coursera’s new subscription model?

Written by Dhawal Shah
5 minute read
3 Comments

What do professors think of Coursera’s new subscription model? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Wayne Whiteman, PhD, Senior Academic Professional, Georgia Tech

This does not make me happy. I can envision a time, not too far in the future, where I am going to be forced to put some of my material/content behind a paywall. 

I offer 8 engineering courses on the Coursera platform. I am not happy with the subscription model. I have been involved with Coursera and MOOC courses for over 4 years.

I understand that Coursera needs to eventually generate positive revenue to continue operating. This appears to be the motive for moving from the payment for course certificates to a subscription model.

My problem with the whole process is that the content providers, like myself, have little input in this drive toward revenue generation.

I got into offering my material for altruistic reasons. I am fine with offering Coursera learners an option to buy services. But, I see a trend toward where content providers, like myself, are losing control of our content. I can envision a time, not too far in the future, where I am going to be forced to put some of my material/content behind a paywall.

This does not make me happy.


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Answer by Chuck Severance, Clinical Associate Professor at University of Michigan (1999-present)

Coursera is by far the best place to deliver a MOOC to achieve the greatest impact. Changes to their business model are frustrating, my reaction is to put my energy making the world a better place in concert with my strong and continuing support for Coursera. 

I teach the Python for Everybody specialization (5 courses) and the Internet History course on Coursera and have been teaching on Coursera for over five years. I started working with Coursera technical staff back on 2012 when it first started. In 2014, I helped build the LTI implementation in Coursera and I think I am the only person with a Coursera tattoo (below). So I have some history.

Before I answer your direct (and excellent) question I will say that Coursera is by far the best place to deliver a MOOC to achieve the greatest impact. While there are many MOOC providers now, they all were made possible because of the work done in 2011 at Stanford and then at Coursera. Lets not forget that. I spent much of this summer preparing four new classes that will be the Web Applications for Everybody Specialization this Fall. I love Coursera and am proud to be part of Coursera.

The current model was arrived at in a series of steps that slowly pushed the most valuable bits of my content behind a paywall.  

Now the sticky bits. I don’t like the subscription model and have been opposed to the evolution of the Coursera business model from “teach as many as possible and monetize from those who can pay” to “maximize revenue as much as possible, provide grants for those with need, and provide a second-class experience to non-paying students to encourage payment”. The current model was arrived at in a series of steps that slowly pushed the most valuable bits of my content behind a paywall. Like others, I got into this to maximize how far my content is distributed – and if there was money to be made (and there was) – great.

I was happiest when Coursera courses were 100% free and the only way revenue was generated was through certificates – and there was need-based financial aid available for those who could not pay for certificates. The most joyful (from my perspective) Coursera business model was back in 2014.

But with a yield rate of ~3% or less – the cost to *Coursera* to provide technical support, etc to the other 97% was non-trivial. So I get it. I know what a “perfect world” looks like and I know why things are the way they are. So I take the good for what it is and try to work around constraints that make me less happy.

I (unlike most Coursera professors) also publish *all* my educational content as Open Educational Resources (OER) that are freely reusable and re-mixable for anyone who might want to use them to teach without needing to pay me. Coursera’s ever broadening paywall was frustrating to me because it hid my free materials from those who would not pay.

So for the past three years, I have been building software that would let me host my material as a “MOOC of My Own”. Each of my MOOCs now lives on the free and open Internet with a domain like www.wa4e.com or www.py4e.com – these sites also serve as an outlet for my free OER materials. I built the Tsugi Framework for Building Learning Tools to create and host my own MOOCs. I did not want to use Open edX because .. (that is another whole question)

If you are a student in one of my Coursera MOOCs and you complain to my teaching assistants about the paywall – we refer them to my 100% free and 100% open web sites. Some students take the course on Coursera and do the homework on my independent web sites.

I would add that I also host the autograders and educational tools that I have built to support my course on these external sites- which allows me to develop a Tsugi tool once and deploy it in Coursera, edX, Sakai, Canvas, Moodle, etc.. using Learning Tools Interoperability – my tattoo below is the IMS LTI “Ring of Compliance”.

So, in summary, I continue to love Coursera and feel that it is *by far* the best MOOC provider and while the latest changes to their business model are frustrating, my reaction is to put my energy making the world a better place in concert with my strong and continuing support for Coursera.