MOOCs: Are They About Access or Money?


If you read the news, listen to legislators, or watch TED talks, you might think MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are just about providing free access to high-quality courses for anyone who wants to take them.

Moody’s Investment Services clearly has a different idea.  Its September 12, 2012 report, titled “Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities,” should be mandatory reading for everyone who thinks MOOCs and online education are really about student access and educational equity.

In the clearest of terms, the Moody’s report makes it clear that MOOCs are about money; and the biggest winners in MOOCs are not students, but elite universities:

“The recent proliferation of free online courses offered by elite universities is expected to have short and long-term positive credit impacts on universities with a global presence. Universities with the strongest brand recognition will experience some direct market benefits from the new platform, although they already attract students, faculty, and donors from across the globe.

“These universities benefit from favorable publicity, in the form of enhanced name recognition and political good will.  The most significant short-term benefit to the top-tier universities is blunting public criticism that wealthy universities do not provide enough service to fulfill their public mission and, therefore, maintain their tax-exempt status in the United States…

“Over the long-term, these leading universities could easily garner material new revenue if they were to monetize these products.”

For people who worry about students and what all the changes taking place in higher education touted as “good for students” will really mean for their future, the report is chilling.  It’s time to “follow the money” if we really want to understand what’s at work in higher education today.