If anything will put a halt to the expansion of online courses, it won't be lack of interest. The New York Times is reporting that free online education providers like Coursera have hit a million users this month, which means the company's popularity is growing at faster pace than either Twitter or Facebook. The hitch – if it comes – will be profitability.
The investors are convinced that there will be a way to monetize Coursera's success. Since its opening a year ago, it has attracted nearly $22 million in venture funding. And it is not alone. There have been several similar successes, from edX to Udacity, that have been similarly well funded. Now education experts are predicting that the massive online open courses that these companies offer could prove to be the future of higher education.
Assuming, of course, their founders and investors can figure out how to turn MOOCs into money.
"No one's got the model that's going to work yet," said James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law. "I expect all the current ventures to fail, because the expectations are too high. People think something will catch on like wildfire. But more likely, it's maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money."
Unsurprisingly, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera's co-founders, don't share Grimmelmann's point of view. As a matter of fact, the company has recently taken a few tentative steps to monetize the content that it offers.
And among the ideas floated, licensing has so far attracted the most attention. This would allow Coursera to do what it does best – design courses – for universities around the country to pay a small fee to repackage them and offer them to their students.
Koller also envisions someday having students continue to take courses for free, but having them pay a small sum for official certificates of completion. How far these certificates will go with colleges and employers is still anyone's guess.
Coursera – along with several others in the industry – have also been charging large corporations looking to acquire programming talent to get access to the list of promising students, especially those taking courses in STEM disciplines.
One tiny revenue stream has begun flowing into the nondescript Silicon Valley office building where Coursera's 35 employees work to keep up with the demand for their courses: the company is an Amazon affiliate, getting a sliver of the money each time Coursera students click through the site to buy recommended textbooks or any other products on Amazon.