The Coursera Model of Central Planning for Education

An interesting conflict is developing in California over the spread of “MOOCs.” First, a bit on the business model of a leading MOOC firm, Coursera:

When and if money does come in, the universities will get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course (and thus how long Coursera has to profit from it). The institutions will also get 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid. That means the company gets the vast majority of the cash flow.

It now looks as if Coursera’s model of siphoning education dollars may be challenged in California. In its race to put more courses online, the UC administration has apparently asked for the following in a provision of a proposed faculty contract with Coursera:

“I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.”

I wonder—could Coursera repurpose a course for use in, say, Singapore, by promising to cut out any critical commentary on the Singaporean government? The UC Santa Cruz Faculty Association is also challenging that provision, asking “What plan does the campus have to reduce instructional costs as a result of its contract with Coursera? In what form, if any, would members of our bargaining unit benefit from that plan?” In other words, is this MOOCification really an effort to expand access, or just to shift money from one area (direct instruction) to another (platforms for promoting online models of education)?

The other key question here is: Why isn’t U of C itself building a platform for online ed? What’s the value-add of Coursera itself, over what, say, a group of computer science grads at the U of C system could itself build? Imagine it took, say, $40 million in funding for the university system to build a similar infrastructure for itself. Wouldn’t it be grossly irresponsible for the university to allocate away decisionmaking control over its own courses (including the right to make it all available for free), and 84% to 95% of revenue, to a private company, if it could build the platform itself?

I see only two logics for that decision. One is the blanket neoliberal assumption that “market” institutions can always do better than the state—even (or perhaps especially) if the market tends to centralize into one huge corporation work once done by thousands of distributed entities. Closely related is a rentier agenda that sees profits as the ultimate arbiter of social value:

In today’s rentier-friendly conservative ideology, somebody who makes payday loans at usurious interest rates, gouges businesses with high insurance rates, or gets paid tolls from a privatized toll road is as much a “maker” and an “entrepreneur” and a “capitalist” as someone who puts together a team of inventors, engineers, workers and investors to apply 3-D printing to printing replacement body parts. All money-making enterprises are supposed to be equally productive and socially useful, for no other reason than they make somebody rich.

To apply this to the present case: UC admins are apparently willing to allocate funds from a course at about 6% to 15% to the university (home of the engineers and professors who actually make the course content and do research), and about 84 to 95% to the operators of the toll road for the content. Even if we assume that the MOOC platforms are using cutting edge technology to record courses, and the best educational research to present them, I would still need to see many more platform functions to be convinced that the proper allocation was not more along the lines of 90% to the university, and 10% to the platform.

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