PEDAGOGY AND PROFITS
University officials decided to partner with Coursera for several reasons—not the least of which is that the company’s founders reached out to Penn before anyone else did. Another factor, Rock and Price say, was Penn’s lack of expertise in online education.
Free, high-quality, online collegiate classes are not a brand new invention. MIT has been putting entire courses on the Web since 2002, and now offers, at no charge, more than 2,100 classes encompassing “virtually the entire curriculum” of the university on its Open CourseWare (OCW) website. More recently, MIT teamed up with Harvard to found edX, a non-profit MOOC platform that currently offers 24 courses produced by one of six participating colleges.
“MIT, to their credit, did much to advance those technologies, and launched in many respects the Open Course movement,” Price says. “But that investment in the technology per se is what led them down that road. Our lack of investment in this technology was what permitted us to focus on what I think matters, which is the content and the pedagogy, and to leave the technology to Coursera.”
In Rock’s view, “There’s a really optimal division of labor with a for-profit venture-capital company taking care of, and taking the risk of, developing the platform— something that Penn has no comparative advantage at internally—and the universities doing what they’re best at, which is producing high-quality instruction.”
It’s also attractive that, as both an academic partner and an equity investor, Penn has the potential to cover the costs of producing these courses—which run to about $50,000 a pop (consisting primarily of stipends for professors and teaching assistants, along with the cost of videography)—with a double cut of Coursera’s profits, should profits materialize.
(Penn has not disclosed the details of its agreement with Coursera. According to the company, academic partner institutions will keep between 6 and 15 percent of revenues from classes taught by their professors, plus 20 percent of the profits. Penn has also not disclosed how much of this revenue will flow to individual professors; Rock says the formula is modeled on the University’s patent policy.)
“I think of this largely as a set of investments I’m willing to make as an educator,” says Price. “They’re necessary investments, and I would make them in any event. But the idea that we might defray some of those expenses makes the proposition that much more interesting.”
Coursera’s venture-capital backers, of course, are betting on—and will no doubt push for—profits well beyond that modest expectation. Which makes some Penn faculty members uneasy.
“Penn always goes where the money is,” remarks John Puckett, a professor in the Graduate School of Education who is currently working on a history of the University since World War II. “Coursera seems to be another way of providing non-traditional instruction in a way that’s going to make money for the institution, because we’re one of the anchor institutions of American capitalism.
“For all the pablum about pristine academic values,” he adds, “they sometimes play a second fiddle. The question is, where does the slippery slope become a mudslide?”
Price appears to be keeping Puckett’s question in the front of his mind, and notes that Penn has a nonexclusive agreement with Coursera. “We put our energy into this partnership,” he says. “It makes sense to play this out in a way that benefits both Coursera and Penn. But if at any point the company moves in a trajectory that’s not consistent with our mission, there’s really nothing lost by that. And to some extent one could imagine a scenario where our investment in that company proves to have been a wise investment in a financial sense, even if we part ways and move in very different directions.”
In the meantime, as Rock puts it, “What we’re doing, in an incredibly cost-effective way, is jumpstarting the integration of technology into teaching on campus.”