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.


LOGO_RFPU Vb2To 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).


Pierre Binétruy


  • Anna Skornyakova

    No comments here… I’d love to support your efforts at least with an idea. I spent the weekend looking for the opportunities of further learning in the Internet, and made a conclusion that there is a lack in this sector, you could occupy it. I didn’t find long-term (1-2 years) fee-paid courses, sort of ‘Introduction to Astrophysics’, without pre-requirements of higher math and physics (being a journalist, I have only school background in math and science, but good one), and without formal attestation of your English level (like IELTS), and for an affordable fee. If you designed such course (if it’s possible, of course), you could get a sort of synergy: amazing and already well-known Gravity! will provide a good promotion to that extended course, and you could include the MOOC’s costs into the price of that course. I’m sure you know all that much better than I do, but I could share with you my small survey of education possibilities I found, if it’s of interest. I’d be happy to help you a little.

  • Neil McLellan

    I have to say that the published Conference summary is depressingly anodyne – I’ve seen it so often where peoples enthusiasm is just neutered by administrators and by the unspoken political agenda. What a lot of insubstantial woffle and gobbledegook in the available downloads!

    However purpose is important. There’s almost enough now to construct an anthropology of MOOC usage. For the originators of the MOOC it has something to do with institutional and personal contribution and for that to be recognised. This is not necessarily selfless. For the recipients it is more complicated. Some just want to learn, others are bored (or perhaps lonely) and tune into numerous MOOCs simply to be part of a discussion. Some are content to learn just one new thing, others want to address the subject academically and in its entirety. Some are on a perverse ego trip where they already know about the subject in considerable (but not necessarily accurate) detail and just want to show off in discussion. Then there are those who like MOOCs as experimental test beds for something they envisage as being a paradigm for future educational mechanisms at considerably less cost than attending an institution.

    So irrespective of purpose or perspective I think it would be reasonable to request a nominal charge for participating. Perhaps a limit of 2 Euros, paid on registration? Perhaps a charge for submitting more than 20 comments per week of the course, sold at 1 euro per additional 1-10 comments per week? Clearly there are pricing possibilities here including that of exempting specific populations from whom a charge might be prohibitive and a disincentive to participation.
    I would have relished the published discussions more if they had bitten the bullet and talked about realities!

    Your observation that there was a 14 fold better uptake when your course was in English than in French is perhaps regrettable but nonetheless a reality. These observations need to be factored into any solution if they are considered to be valid.

    We certainly need inspirational educators and MOOCs could be a wonderful platform – but not at any cost.

  • Constance Martyn

    I agree with the above that a really small charge would not put people off-say £5 on registration and multiplied by 70,000 would help a bit with costs. I have been put off in the past by the cost of some on line courses but value Future Laern so much that I would willingly pay a small amount.

  • Rod Brown

    Perhaps you, and the whole MOOC community, could consider a Wikipedia style fundraising email shot once a year. I, and I am sure many others who enjoy these courses, would be happy to help keep them going.

  • Emmett M Woods


    I am new to the MOOC world, with Gravity! being the first online course that I have taken. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and am saddened to hear of the uncertain nature of funding/compensating for these efforts.

    With 70,000+ participants, would one option be to simply ask for a small contribution upon enrollment? Even if this was not mandatory, to accommodate those who simply have no money, the rest of us might cover a significant portion of the costs.

    Again, thanks for all of the time and effort you and your colleagues put into making Gravity! so enjoyable!


    • Anne Hoskins

      I would suggest a small contribution on COMPLETION rather than registration. I have taken a lot of courses and have found a small proportion to be rubbish by comparison with the average. Some are just not well designed and some are ‘thin’ as regards material or not of the depth expected. More seriously a few are used to promote questionable obsessions of the academic authors. I might feel justified in asking for my money back!
      The value of the best courses, Gravity included, is beyond measure. Many Goverments have huge education budgets that should surely be supporting free online education.

      • Pierre Binétruy

        Dear Anne,
        I agree with you that giving a small (and optional) contribution at the end of the course makes more sense. This is why we have a Paypal donation button on this website, and some learners are spontaneously giving small donations, which is, beyond the actual sum of money, a reward for our efforts! But we do not advertise this on the course itself because we think that it would not be elegant with respect to Futurelearn, which needs also all our support for the great work they do.
        Now, we are presently thinking about another way to support us, and I am throwing the idea into the discussion to see your reactions. What is costly is the conception of a new course. So why not associate all the past learners into this effort by launching a donation campaign? This would allow us to receive small sums of money which, added together, would help us cover some of the costs. But this would be also a great opportunity for discussing with you all (even those who cannot donate anything) about the content of such a course, and for getting suggestions. I have no idea whether this was tried before. But this is much in the spirit of building a large community interested in the scientific themes that we are working on. All comments welcome!


        • Tonydec

          Pierre said:

          “So why not associate all the past learners into this effort by launching a donation campaign?”

          Hi Pierre,

          In life, timing is everything. After a few weeks, most people have forgotten about the course. An option would be to find a way to identify those participants who were “highly satisfied” with the course during the final survey, and immediately ask them if they want to contribute anything via a Paypal link (it has to be really easy to pay). Psychologically, if you just said that you really liked a course, you are more likely to be willing to donate.

          And, as I said in another thread, if there is some kind of “membership” (10 euros/dollars/etc. per year) that allows you access to a special area with information on the latest scientific developments, some people may be interested in this kind of set up.



          • Pierre Binétruy

            Dear Tony,
            The idea of a small fee membership is interesting to identify those of you with special interest for staying informed. Moreover, it goes both ways: once you have paid a small fee, say 10$, you pay more attention when you receive some relevant information.
            Best wishes,

          • Constance Martyn

            Sounds interesting

        • Anna Skornyakova

          I liked your idea of creating a course Quantum. If there is somebody who can explain all those quantum miracles in simple words, it must be you. And something like a course ‘The Theory of Everything’ might be created, for those who would have completed both Gravity! and Quantum courses, to avoid repeating the base concepts. This course may focus on contradictions between general relativity and quantum mechanics, main theories trying to unify them and ‘new physics’ we are standing on the edge of. In particular, the Microscope mission would go together very well with this content.
          As for me, I will support any your endeavors any way I can.
          Best wishes,

  • Pierre Binétruy

    Thank you all for your ideas, and bring some more. I do think that ideas should come from the learners and the teachers, and not from the big companies who have identified this a potentially fruitful “market”.
    I think that we are all convinced that money should not prevent anyone from getting access to this new way of disseminating knowledge. In the long run, this is in the interest of all of us, and of our little planet.

    • Neil McLellan

      You are absolutely right, Pierre. Somehow a way needs to be found to support both the integrity of the teachers and the dignity of the learners. I think that should come from the community of those involved – from the impetus that the desire of teachers and learners have in common.

  • Sarah

    Why not have a voluntary contribution of, say 10 euros as a minimum (allow people to pay more if they so wish), this could be offered at the end of each week, until the participant has paid up. I have participated in many FutureLearn courses and would be happy to pay more for many of them. I would have been happy to pay more than 10 euros for the Gravity! course. Given the number of participants on the run of the course in which I took part the costs could possibly have been mainly covered. If FutureLearn can take payments for certificates, then contributions should not be a problem. The possible problem would be the redistribution of the funds collected.

    I shall make the suggestion on the FutureLearn site via feedback.

  • Bill

    What methods of payment at the moment are there that ensure the money goes to the Gravity! team?

    • Pierre Binétruy

      Dear Bill,

      For any statement of participation bought from Futurelearn, the Gravity! team receives a small fraction of the sum.

      And we have a foundation, more precisely an endowment fund, called “Physics of the Universe” which supports our activities. The Gravity! course was a major initiative of this foundation and, for the time being, all donations are devoted to developing Gravity! and related courses.
      More about this Fund at the end of this page:


      • Martin Ridgway

        I often thought about the split of my money for a statement of participation between the university presenting the course and FutureLearn themselves. From your answer it looks like FutureLearn keep most of it for maintaining the platform.
        That being so, then a small (but optional) sign-on fee seems the best way to go. (speaking as someone who does 2 or 4 MOOCs a year)

  • Trevor Watson

    I accept that I may be seen as an old anarchic socialist but I have seen this before with the Open University. I took early courses (1970’s) when there were grants for poorer students and I was able to do a few that enabled me to entre full-time University. I am full of admiration and respect for the people behind the OU program and thus the opportunities that this afforded me. However after a few years grants were cut (political) and the OU was forced to start to increase fees. As consequence a growing minority of people are now excluded from the fantastic opportunity of learning.

    I would hate to see this on ‘Future Learn’ there must be millions of people in developing countries that would be excluded. It is depressing to think of all that potential talent and skill that would be lost to future generations.

    Why are many politicians and elites so ignorant about the importance of education, why is educational opportunity always down to ‘the bottom line’? Why is education not valued for the massively productive spin off it creates for the whole global society? I would reluctantly willing to pay a small fee if the program could capture some of that latent talent in the poorer communities of the world.

  • Neil McLellan

    I don’t disagree with you Trevor. If there is an established learning community and if there are corresponding educators then there is a possibility of independence. By its very nature this would value education in the ways you suggest. Yet it is hard to see how this could be achieved on a wing and a prayer. It has to be financed and if this, too, is to be independent then it has to come from those involved and committed. It still seems to me that much more needs to be understood about why people participate – I tried to suggest earlier that that is probably quite complicated and diverse when there are no admission criteria other than having on-line access. That seems to me to add to the richness of the experience and allows various streams of thought to exist side by side within the context of the whole and yet available to all those who wish to engage with a particular strand at a particular time. That luxury has to come at a cost. Realistic and appropriate costing cannot be achieved without knowing the origins of the learners and the significance that learning and participation has to their lives.

    For example. As a retired European citizen I have no interest in a certificate of participation. In any event these seem costly and (currently) insignificant. On the other hand I take courses seriously and believe what I get out is essentially proportional to what I put in to any given platform. There will be others for whom a certificate of participation is a significant personal attribute. I think such should be awarded on the basis of assessment rather than having just ticked the boxes of “having looked”. So I think a small participation fee at entry and a slightly higher fee for a meaningful certificate would make sense but there would clearly need to be exemptions. One might say that all participants under a certain age were exempt, that participants from countries with a certain GDP or above should pay but others not etc. Without detailed demographics – which must be available – it’s hard to say what would be realistic or appropriate. But charging has its own costs – mechanistically but also in terms of governance – implying a stage set for ever increasing expense!

    How to break out of that loop whilst retaining educational integrity and user commitment? A completely separate approach would be to use national charitable funding (eg the Lottery Fund in the UK) to finance high quality, validated initiatives form institutions in those countries, available to all. I suspect that could be at least a temporary solution whether with a nominal registration fee and/or assessment fee, or not. Institutions who contribute might carry some of the cost themselves in return for the perceived international kudos they receive from having taken part.

  • tonydec

    Hi Pierre,

    Here are some suggestions:

    1) Stephen Downes, who was one of the first people to use the term “MOOC”, has spoken extensively about the economics of MOOCS. He is worth talking to. You can find him at:

    2) A good article with an overview of the challenges facing MOOCS:

    “2016 – the year of MOOC hard questions”

    3) MOOCS and student income:

    “the typical demographic of MOOCs: highly qualified, independent learners from a well off background.”

    Find that article at:

    I think the essential question is: what are MOOC projects for? A marketing tool to raise the profile of the university? A “do good” project by some socially conscious academics? An effort to offer higher education to poor students?
    It is unlikely that private corporations would support MOOCS financially unless they received some practical benefits. For example, Monsanto would not support courses on agriculture that criticized Genetically Modified Organisms. And Shell, Total and so on would not support courses that criticized fossil fuels.

    A possible solution (assuming there is a critical mass of learners out there in the world) would be to create a “learning co-operative”. Members would contribute 10 dollars/euros/etc. per year to have access to any future MOOC projects created by you. This is not likely to be a financial barrier, as students who take these courses already need funds to access a computer, an internet connection and so on. For students that can’t even afford that, their school could purchase the membership and all students in that school could access the courses via their computers and internet connection.
    I think it is unrealistic to expect anybody to create high quality courses without any funding. Unless you find a Bill Gates to finance the project, the co-op concept is probably a feasible way to collect a few hundred thousand euros per year (assuming there are enough people out there interested in the topics).


    • Anna Skornyakova

      Well, actually the global private corporations normally spend some money for charity and social projects to support and ‘excuse’ their business, and, of course, all of them have huge PR-budgets. It is only necessary to understand which exact companies could be interested in this particular MOOC. For example, it could be the companies involved in LISA Pathfinder project (very good promotion for them has already been done during the course and Hangouts). In addition, the space agencies, such as NASA or ESA, and similar organizations, also have PR-budgets – why not to try getting some funding from them? Otherwise, indeed, the crowd funding is the only way to survive…

  • Pierre Binétruy

    Lots of very interesting suggestions. We have started discussing around us to see how some of these could be implemented. And to make it a happy end of year, we have just received a significant donation from the Fondation Jean-François et Marie-Laure de Clermont Tonnerre for our training activities (which includes MOOC). We have also received donations to our Endowment Fund from a few learners, and this has been much appreciated, I can tell you, not just for the money but also as a gesture of support. And all your ideas and suggestions are also supporting us in our efforts. As we say in French, and probably in English, small streams make big rivers…

  • susan

    I am sorry I have nothing new to add to the above comments, but just to say, I would support a nominal fixed charge but it needs to be low and fairly nominal. But, the danger would be that the most popular courses attract huge numbers and those that aren’t so popular secure less income and gradually get phased out as the correlation is made between income generated and viability. Added to this, once the principle of charging has been established, other sources of potential funding may diminish, and pressure to make annual increases, as the administrators seek to maximise income, accepting “drop out” as casualties and gradually creating a learning elite. I like the idea suggested in an earlier comment about an annual membership fee to enable access to MOOCS. However, it’s all in the price and an annual fee, payable in one go (to minimise admin costs) will inevitably exclude some. Maybe 2 levels, eg £10 and £20 suggesting the higher rate be paid (on a voluntary basis) by those over X level of income. some would still opt for the lower rate but a lot would pay the higher rate, provided it was still a fairly low, amount, to prevent “loosing” too many people.
    Generally, it is said that if you pay for something you value it more. In the case of MOOCS I don’t think that is the case. I think they are wonderful, a true unique gift in a world where everything costs.

  • Barbara Harrison

    As a senior on an extremely small income I could not afford more than about $5 for the course. I am uninterested in collecting any more pieces of paper (simply do not have space for them!). I did actively participate, even if some thought my questions were unenlightened. Years of raising my son and doing volunteer work with children did not exactly stimulate the brain. I will consider courses as they are presented IF the fee is affordable (and I have a secure method of making it) and IF I have the time available. This is written in the lull between the East Coast (USA) Blizzard of January 2016 and whatever may follow in trying to staff an emergency winter shelter.

    • Anna Skornyakova

      Dear Barbara, your brain works well if you want to learn something new. And blizzard, as well as rain, cannot last forever. Don’t give up!

      And some more ideas for the Gravity! team (mostly picked up on other courses and platforms):
      – An examination for fee for those learners who want to get the more significant certificate.
      – Don’t know if it is possible to implement on FutureLearn, but the principle of payment on Coursera seems more efficient to me. All courses are not free on that platform (the fee is less than on FutureLearn). But they mention that if you really cannot afford the fee, you can take the course for free. I’m sure that some learners can afford the certificate on FutureLearn, but they don’t really need it, and they simply don’t think about production costs of the courses.
      – As I wrote before, all the projects mentioned and described in the course, as well as companies and agencies involved, are the potential sources of funding as they all have PR-budgets.
      – Advertising of relevant apps for smartphones such as different maps of sky and so on.
      – Advertising and ‘product placement’ in general. I also don’t know if it is possible and acceptable, but the idea can be the same as in apps for smartphones: downloading an app for free, you should accept the fact it contains some advertisement. The pack of sugar and the certain colours of socks (the Coca Cola Company would be happy if they were red and white) seem simply to be monetized. Of course, I am not fully serious here, but it also can be the direction of considering.

      • tonydec

        Hi Anna,

        Thanks for sharing your suggestions.

        One of the factors that attracted me to FutureLearn was the lack of advertising. I have seen far too many cases of conflict of interest, where large multinationals end up having too much influence over the content of materials on a website. Imagine a pharmaceutical company “sponsoring” a course on a medical topic. Would they be happy if the content of the course criticized the side-effects of the company’s products?
        Given that to take part in a course you need to already be able to afford a cellphone/computer/tablet/internet connection, I find it very hard to believe that most participants would not be able to pay a small yearly “membership” fee to take future courses. When you multiply that by the number of participants, you end up with a substantial sum of money. There could always be exceptions for people who just can’t afford the membership.
        I donate a small amount yearly to Wikipedia because I think their work needs to be supported, and I would be willing to to the same for a science platform if I then had access to their courses/materials/etc. To me the “certificate” is just not that useful, but access to good, reliable scientific data is quite meaningful.


        • Anna Skornyakova

          Hi Tony,

          You are right, it is extremely important to stay independent and do the best to avoid any conflict of interest. And, happily, in this particular case – the Gravity! course – it is not that difficult. The Gravity! team can choose projects they want to describe in the course and create all the content before trying to get funding from them. Actually, some projects are already mentioned in the course, so why not to try working with them?
          As for simple advertisement, first of all, it was almost a joke. But, again, in this particular case, unlikely any producers of the relevant apps and products can influence the scientific content of the course.
          As well as you, I find the advertisement annoying, but I also understand that it is a good source of funding for the interesting, independent educational projects. Otherwise the projects producers will have to cut their costs. I am completing such low-budget course at the moment, and the difference between that course and Gravity! is huge. 90% of course content is articles, 5% – short cartoons, 5% – NASA/ESA videos and simulations. There is almost nothing tailor-made for the course, no lectures, a couple of not very dedicated educators… A bit disappointing, frankly speaking.
          As for crowd funding – I would be happy if it was a good source, but I doubt it. I don’t know the statistics of the course, but I don’t think that all of those 70.000 who were subscribed, have completed the course and are interested in further development and membership. Not more than 5.000 were more or less active in discussions, let’s guess that 5.000 more have completed the course and were satisfied, but how many of those 10.000 are ready to pay for the membership?.. But, of course, in this case I will be happy to mistake!

        • Anna Skornyakova

          Sorry, I should have written 5,000 and 10,000 – in Russian it’s vice versa and I’m always mistaking 🙂

      • Martin Ridgway

        I did the Edinburgh Higgs Boson course on FutureLearn and they did have mentions at the end of the course for a sit-down serious exam (fee around £100) to gain a much more formal qualification – so there is a precedent and this seems to be OK with the FutureLearn administrators.

  • Constance Martyn

    I tried to leave a small donation on the gravity website but could only find a euro amount . Am I just being thick or is there a way to donate in pounds sterling?

  • Pierre Binétruy

    Dear Constance,
    Thank you for your support! We are grateful to the smallest donations, because we know that, for many, even a small amount is a big effort. Now, I suppose that the donations are in Euros because our Paypal account is located in France. But the sum will be deducted from your account in pounds, if it is in the UK. I just checked that, for example, 10 pounds is roughly 13 euros, if this can help.

  • Constance Martyn

    Thanks Pierre

  • tonydec

    Hi Pierre

    I am not sure where to post this, but here is a suggestion.

    There are very few recent, good, and affordable introductory books on gravity published in English. The only one I have found and purchased is “Gravity: Cracking the Cosmic Code” by Nicholas Mee (2014). Until your book on gravity gets translated into English, perhaps you may want to consider mentioning this text by Mee in your course bibliography.



  • Helen Mary Jones

    Came late to this thread, and find that Neil and Tony have ben active, as in their comments on the Gravity! course, and said it all for me. Yes, I, too, am a poor pensioner who doen’t need any certificates, so I agree with Neil that we shoud have a small fee for all who register for any MOOC, and a higher fee for the certificate obtained after a short exam.

  • Fantastic website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any message boards
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    I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get feed-back
    from other knowledgeable individuals that
    share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
    Bless you!

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