Unlocking the Gates… at elite universities

Inside Higher Ed reports today that “Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have teamed up with a for-profit company to offer free versions of their coveted courses this year to online audiences. By doing so, they join a growing group of top-tier universities that are embracing massively open online courses, or MOOCs, as the logical extension of elite higher education in an increasingly online, global landscape.”

Coursera is not the first attempt by elite universities to break into online education, but hopefully it will fare better than its fore-bearers Fathom and AllLearn, two collaborative fee-based education programs that ultimately failed (and coincidentally are profiled in the definitive study of online courseware at elite universities–Unlocking the Gates by Taylor Walsh, on behalf of Ithaka S+R).

So, what lessons could these early programs offer to Coursera? As the Fathom project demonstrates, blurring the lines between not-for-profit and for-profit partners can be difficult as revealed by Walsh’s interview with Ann Kirschner.

Kirschner admits that in retrospect there were inherent contradictions in Fathom’s approach, which had roots in both the for-profit and not-for-profit camps. “Fathom always had a bit of confusion in its mission because we had the really lofty mission of educating the world, but on the other hand Columbia was . . . judging us on our ability to be self-sustaining rather quickly—and you can’t have it both ways,” she said. “We could have been selfsustaining more quickly if we would have sold just anything on the site, but if we had sold just anything on the site we wouldn’t have been proper stewards of Columbia’s brand and its intellectual property.”

Another lesson from Unlocking the Gates‘s AllLearn case-study? Keep it simple:

AllLearn’s central organization’s vision for course development also diverged somewhat from those of the campuses. Bernstein explained that the on-campus technology shops that produced much of the AllLearn content were naturally interested “in looking at pedagogy for online teaching” and wanted to experiment with innovative—and often expensive—uses of multimedia in course development. But AllLearn’s central office preferred to keep it simple and develop courses cheaply, because these inexpensive courses had demonstrated the greatest market success. Bernstein said of the Iraq course: “it cost us nothing to develop that, $5,000 or $10,000, yet that was the one that could attract the most students.” He also said that “a creative writing course that was extremely low tech, where you spend nothing on bells and whistles or recorded lectures or anything” was one of AllLearn’s most popular offerings. Tristram Wyatt of Oxford agreed, saying that surveys demonstrated that the simple courses based on a book with online discussions worked better than flashy courses.

One of the most important lessons has already been incorporated into Coursera. As the IHE reports, the courses will be free. Both AllLearn and Fathom were fee-based models — something that many credit for their ultimate failure:

Gary Bisbee, online education market analyst at Lehman Brothers, speculated in 2003 that Fathom lacked a sufficient market because “working adults trying to advance their careers don’t care about Shakespeare”—at least not enough to pay for courses at a level that could support the endeavor. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the online courseware programs from elite universities that followed would be offered to the public at no charge, based on a perception that, when it comes to noncredit-bearing enrichment courses offered online, free is closer to the price the market will bear.

But perhaps the most important issue will be credentials. Will students want to take courses — even Ivy League courses — if they don’t ultimately have a certificate or some documentation to show for it? In the introduction to Unlocking the Gates, Walsh that what most students want out of an online education is the credential, but there are numerous obstacles to overcome:

We also know that it is the certificate or degree associated with completing a course of study that, in the minds of many, is what is really valuable (and thus marketable). Yet highly selective colleges and universities such as MIT have never seriously considered going down this “credentialing” path. The reasons are both understandable and straightforward. Universities such as MIT believe that the educational value that they offer to their carefully chosen students derives in large part from the on-campus and in-person setting in which teaching and research take place. They do not want to undercut this value proposition by giving “MIT credit” for a very different online offering that, in their view, would not be of “MIT quality.” Presenting some of their own on-campus courses in a strictly online mode could also compromise their ability to compete with other elite universities for the very best students—many of whom expect face-to-face contact with professors and regular in-class interactions with talented peers.

So, how will Coursera address this obstacle? The IHE reports that the credential issue is still very much up in the air:

None of the universities will offer formal credit through the courses they put online through Coursera. However, several might give students the opportunity to earn certificates bearing the names of both the universities and the company. There is no formal credentialing mechanism currently in place, but some university officials indicated that tangibly recognizing the achievements of non-enrolled learners is a goal.

To learn more about online courseware and the various success and failures that have occurred in recent decades, pick up a copy of Taylor Walsh’s Unlocking the Gates.


  1. As someone who dropped out of a PhD program with an MA in order to be able to take care of my daughter, I miss learning very much, and I am thrilled that there is now a free online opportunity take classes! This is truly wonderful news, Princeton, and something I’ll definitely look into, not for a certificate, but for the love of learning!