Nearly 600,000 people have signed up for Vanderbilt University’s free, open-to-the-public online courses since the first offerings launched early last year.
They’re called MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. They use a mix of videos, quizzes and discussion boards to teach classes like “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” or “Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations.”
Although they’re completely free for students, the average MOOC costs Vanderbilt $45,000 to $50,000 to produce, says Cynthia Cyrus, vice provost for learning and residential affairs. The university pays almost all of these costs out of pocket, and Cyrus says they know they won’t get much of that money back.
“I said up front: ‘I am not guaranteeing that we will ever see a penny,’” she says.
Coursera, the site where the classes are hosted, does send Vanderbilt a small check if students pay for a completion certificate or use the site to buy textbooks. But most students won’t do this: Only about half of those who enroll actually engaged with the course at all; of those “active participants,” only 13 percent completed Vanderbilt’s first three MOOCs, according to the university’s data.
But Vanderbilt’s real goal here is not monetary: It’s promotional. Cyrus says MOOCs get the university’s work — and name — out to thousands of people.
“So our metrics are on visibility,” she says. “We’re getting data on recruitment to the university.”
Cyrus says, even though MOOCs are free and real classes at Vanderbilt are not, they’re not taking any business away from the university. They are not replacements for face-to-face learning, she says, although they could be used in conjunction with a formal class.