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This post first appeared on aud.life

Last week, Coursera announced that it was going to start charging for certiicates for more of its classes, particularly those associated with "specializations." Students will still be able to sign up for free to watch videos; but they won't be able to have their assignments graded and they won't be able to get certificates without coughing up some money (between $30 and $100). So much for "democratizing" education.

Inside Higher Ed's Carl Straumsheim sent me an email this morning, asking for my thoughts on the signficance of Coursera's move. I'm posting here what I wrote to him:

Significant, yes. But not surprising.

Or rather, I’m not surprised that Coursera has finally made its intentions clear. The move to charge for certificates has been inevitable from the outset — particularly with the amount of venture capital that the company has raised. It's needed to develop a viable business plan (although I’m not fully convinced that this move will be it. I think Coursera is in the most precarious position of the “o.g.” MOOC providers).

It’s always been striking to me that theses three — Udacity, Coursera, edX — believed that the certificates (free or paid) they offered would be widely accepted, either by employers or by educational institutions. I’m not sure that it’s been true in either case.  As these companies have been so wrapped up in the narrative that college isn’t “worth it,” I think they have overestimated the value of their offerings. It helped, no doubt, when they could connect this value to the ideals of “free” and “open.” Do employers value a Coursera certificate? I’m not sure — particularly if a job applicant doesn’t already have a Bachelors degree. (This is where Udacity’s close partnership with the tech sector seems to be a little different than Coursera’s reliance on the institutional brand to denote the certificates’ value.)

I think it’s interesting too that it isn’t just the certificate that costs money now; it’s having one’s assessments graded. I know at the outset, Coursera was boasting that it could automate this process. But none of the MOOCs have really been able to do so. (Udacity has a huge team of piecemeal graders in India, and that’s one of the jobs it promises with its new job guarantee. LOL.) Coursera’s whole “peer grading” process seems to have fallen to the wayside too. The assessment piece is the most labor-intensive part (particularly since the instruction aspect is just videotaped). I’m not sure partner universities have been too thrilled by having those costs offloaded onto them.

Why, it’s almost as though they didn’t think any of this through and simply believed their own TED-induced hype.

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Audrey Watters


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