The difficult issue of MOOC funding
I recently participated to a meeting organized by the French Embassy in London about the future of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), from a Franco-British perspective. Many actors in the field were present: platform leaders, university representatives and MOOC designers.
One of the major issues discussed in this meeting was funding. MOOCs are in principle free for learners. But they have a cost. To take the example of Gravity! we have estimated the overall cost, including the hours of all those who have worked on it, to around 100 000€. It may seem huge to you, but this appears to be in the ballpark of the cost of such online courses. And it does not even include the costs of the platform. Of course, most of these costs are covered by scientists providing their own free time to conceive and develop these courses, and to support the learners during the course. But one quarter of the sum concerns the technical aspects of video making and has to be financed with real money. In the case of Gravity! this was mostly supported by Sorbonne Paris Cité, a consortium of Paris Universities which initiated a plan for developing new MOOC projects. But how to sustain the effort in the long run?
Various possibilities were discussed in the London meeting. First of all, platforms are absolutely needed and require funding as well. They often started under the umbrella of a public entity, the Open University for Futurelearn in the UK, or the French Ministry for Higher Education for FUN in France. But they need to acquire some financial autonomy. There are various ways to cover costs, at least partially: some propose to buy the certificate of success (Futurelearn), others offer premium options at a cost (OpenClassrooms). And many look in the direction of corporate courses, funded by private companies for their own purposes, as a complementary source of funding.
But what about the funding of the courses themselves? Obviously universities have an interest in MOOCs: a successful one is great publicity. But their finances are tight and may not follow the development of this type of learning. Platforms return a small fraction of their revenues to the courses but this is far from covering the needs. Obviously, scientists are ready to devote some of their free time. But is it fair to ask young researchers to get involved, without any financial return, when they have to develop their own scientific career? In the case of Gravity! again, the team included around ten postdocs and Ph.D. students who were doing it for the fun of it. But what about course replays?
At Gravity! we have been following a slightly different path. We think that one of the strengths of MOOCs is their availability to everyone, irrespective of their origin, their country, their financial resources, or their level of education. We are thus trying to find donors to support the development of courses. This might not appear to be a priority compared to other good causes, like developing new medical treatments, fighting hunger or supporting children in need. But we believe that learning together about our Universe is the kind of universal activity that brings everyone together, and a way to respect each other, and realize that we are on a small planet that we need to preserve together.
To be frank, we have not been very successful yet. We have created some years ago with George Smoot an Endowment Fund Physics of the Universe, but we have had difficulties convincing donors that the development of MOOCs is a valuable enough cause to make donations. We have also made a try at crowd-funding, with a platform created by one of our former postdocs. You may have seen in the first page of this website a proposal to fund an extra video for the Gravity! course, but it did not raise much interest: only 96$ since it has been out, and only 4 days still to go!
But we will pursue in this direction and not be discouraged. Certainly online courses will develop as alternatives to teaching as we envisage it now in our Universities. And students might have to pay for them. But we do believe that some other courses, like Gravity! should be aimed at everyone who wants to learn, and to think about the world around us, irrespective of their background, and financial means. So, if you know anybody susceptible to help us, then let them know about us (contact information may be obtained here).