Since 2012, there has been a surge of new distance education media capable to reach an unprecedented number of audience called the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).(1) Before MOOC websites (i.e. came into existence, there were only piecemeal learning materials online, such as user-generated tutorials on YouTube. Thus, MOOCs fill the important education needs for people who feel these piecemeal instructions are not enough and want something more complete (like a university course) while at the same time not having to pay tuition fees, travel to campus, or fulfill course pre-requisites.

One of the first and most successful MOOC websites is, founded by Drs. Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. It was launched in April 2012. In only two years, Coursera has 7.1 million registered users in 641 courses offered by 108 institutions.(2) For Spring 2013 alone, there were 25,598 students enrolled in a class called “Computational Investing, Part I”. A total of 1,207 of these students participated in a survey. From which, 61% watched a video, 27% took a quiz, and 4.5% completed the course.(3) For those who have completed the course, they were predominantly satisfied with instructor’s teaching (87.9%), amount of time spent (90.4%), and course material’s presentation (83.1%).(4) Interestingly enough, even for those who have not completed the course, an overwhelming majority (93.4%) of them still found the course useful. It suggests that MOOCs are able to not only provide complete high-quality course materials for committed students, but also provide a convenient and noncommittal platform for interested individuals to just “test the water”.

Business Model

So how can websites and institutions making MOOC materials be financially sustainable if most users don’t have to pay a single dime? The 8 potential business models listed by Coursera could shed some light:(1,5)

  • Certifications – students pay money to receive a certification after they have achieved competency from their free learning (i.e. a badge or electronic certificate provided by a university).
  • Secure assessments – students pay money to have their learning assessed and certified at a physical testing site (i.e. assessment centers).
  • Employee recruitment – companies pay money to access student course results to identify potential employees that match the company’s recruitment needs.
  • Applicant screening – companies and educational institutions pay money to gain access to student records to verify that a level of knowledge or expertise has been attained. This would allow access to the company’s recruitment processes or ensure a university course acceptance.
  • Human tutoring or assignment marking – students pay a tutor to help them achieve the desired learning outcomes from the free courses.
  • Corporate learning – companies pay money to get customized courses using the free content and to access special features that help their employees gain necessary skills.
  • Sponsorships – sponsors pay money to have their appropriate advertising appear beside course materials (i.e. textbook publishers).
  • Tuition fees – students pay tuition fees for advanced level learning (after completing the free introductory course) or gaining specialized skills relating to high paying jobs.

In September 2013, Coursera announced it had earned $1 million in revenue through verified certificates that authenticate successful course completion.(2) As of December 2013 the company had raised $85 million in venture capital. Some percentage of the revenue stream was divided among the participating institutions. Unlike YouTube, Coursera currently does not generate revenue through advertisements, which could have played a positive role in user satisfaction.

Will It Change the Way Universities Teach?

MOOC is still a new phenomenon and is unheard of by most students and institutions. Its advantages of cost-saving, time-saving, convenience, massive audience base, and flexibility should not overshadow its current downfalls including non-starters, dropouts, cheating, and fundamental challenges to connectivist and interactive learning.(1,6) Because of these culprits, MOOCs are not going to completely replace university’s face-to-face teaching model, at least not any time soon. Though MOOCs can be used as supplementary or alternative modes of learning for people who are 1) curious in surveying a previously-untapped area or 2) committed in becoming proficient in an area through self-learning without needing an actual university course credit.

MOOCs can provide a quick, first-hand “overview” to those curious people who just want to see if the courses are really for them. If skimming through the material does not inspire further interest, one can simply move on. On the other hand, people who actually complete a MOOC course require self-discipline, motivation, and time management skills. If one is dedicated enough, he or she will go through the videos, assignments, and readings diligently. Yet for those who are just “semi-committed”, they can still be benefited by picking out what they need to learn. This flexibility is what makes MOOCs different from traditional university teaching and attractive to millions of users.

Universities might want to start planning about strategies, fostering an environment, and preparing the manpower, skills, and technologies required to embrace MOOCs as adjunctive/alternative course delivery methods. MOOCs are here to stay and its popularity may rise further once the aforementioned culprits are reconciled.

Public Health Relevance

Departments of Public Health, as compared to other departments, generally have relatively small number of students with diverse interests. That means oftentimes 1) Public Health classes focusing on small niches might not recruit enough students and 2) Public Health students might be interested in classes offered outside the Public Health department. Such public health classes might be forced to cancel despite their high quality or indispensability to an elite group of students. On the other hand, public health students interested in classes from other departments might not be eligible to take them due to restrictions such as pre-requisites and departmental consents.

MOOCs could serve as a two-fold solution. If a class focused on a small niche can’t recruit enough students within a single university, making it available as a MOOC can accumulate a more massive audience, thus making it more sustainable. On the other hand, public health students can take their interested classes through MOOCs (assuming they are available).

Effective public health researches and interventions are heading towards the directions of interdisciplinary and engaged methodologies, MOOCs could provide a convenient and flexible learning channel for public health students, researchers, and practitioners to obtain needed knowledge quickly in a customized fashion. It will be fascinating to see how the roles of MOOCs evolve to adapt universities’ and students’ needs in the future.

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  1. Daniel J. Making sense of MOOCs: musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility. Journal of Interactive Media in Education. 2012.
  2. Coursera. 2014; Available from:
  3. Balch T. MOOC student demographics (Spring 2013) 2013; Available from:
  4. Balch T. Review of “Computational Investing, Part I” taught by Tucker Balch (Spring 2013) 2013; Available from:
  5. Gilfus Education Group. Coursera will profit from “free” courses, competition heats up. 2012; Available from:
  6. Kop R. The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: learning experiences during a Massive Open Online Course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 2011;12(3):19-38.

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