back to article Free online Uni courses pressure vendors to drop training costs

The popularity of massive online open courses (MOOCs) could significantly disrupt vendors' certification models, to the point at which it is no longer possible to charge for education. Several speakers at an event titled “The Future of Higher Education and Skills Training” in Sydney, Australia, today, pointed to the …


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  1. John G Imrie

    Content should be free

    Face to face time with a tutor, marking, and certification should be charged for.


    Teacher Icon because ...

    1. Phil W

      Re: Content should be free

      Care to clarify why this is your position? Because it makes no sense to me.

      Content of educational courses, be they academic courses or industry qualifications from vendors or standards bodies, costs money to produce.

      Whether an individual writes the material or it is the product of an institution/organisation, and will have cost them time and/or money to produce the course content. So why should they give away for free something which has cost them money to produce?

      You wouldn't expect the text books you need for a college/university course to be free. You either buy them or borrow them from a library. Equally, in house produced course materials should be either on loan or available to purchase for those who are not paying for actual course attendance.

      As far as I see it, if the college/university or industry body I am paying to study with gives away it's course material for free to anyone then it's actually me as a paying student who is funding that. The money to produce the material has to come from somewhere.

      1. Phil W

        Re: Content should be free

        As a continuation of the above rant, I would expand by saying that if your opinion is content creators should give content away for free and charge for actual face time and feedback from the content creators then look at it logically compared to other content industries.

        I can't see it working well in TV/movie studios, or fiction authors, stopped charging for the films/TV series/books they write and produce and only charge for meetings and interviews with the actors/authors.

        1. JDC

          Re: Content should be free

          Two questions, slightly rhetorically:

          1) The ease with which content can be copied (and the massive availability of instructional texts) means that it has started to lose value. As you point out, that content costs time and money to produce, how then can you recover those costs?

          2) How do I, as an employer, know that you, the candidate, have actually studied this stuff?

          One possible solution is charging for certification - make the content free, but as the article points out merely signing up for the course means nothing, and the ease with which you can cheat means finishing isn't much better. Charge, too, for face time with the teachers - I don't want to pay to listen to an expert lecture at me, I can get that from a video. But an hour of one-to-one (or small group) instruction? That has real value.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Content [...] has started to lose value

            True, to an extent - but lose value is not "free". Imagine II write some course material and it takes N months, and hence e.g. 6N x £1000 in time/salary/overheads. one I might (imagine) have sold that as a textbook to 1000 people at £6N each, covering costs. Now I might sell to 1000000 people, for almost negligible cost. BUT IF THEY DONT PAY UP, I (or my employer) has made a multi-thousand pound loss. That's not irrelevant: even if each freeloader has supposedly only cost me/us a few tens of pence, the actual loss is still large.

          2. wowfood

            Re: Content should be free

            I don't so much think the content should be free, but it should be much cheaper than it is on many of these courses.

            One course I looked into they charged £700 for at the time. What was the course content? You buy a book for £50 (atop the course fee) and you work through the book. Yes you get access to the campus tools and workspaces, but these tools were a wire crimping set which you could buy from maplin for £40, which you were encouraged to do because the quality of the tools they had on offer was so poor.

            When you have a course teaching you XYZ for £700 I expect it to offer more than a book which cost £50 and a tool set that cost £50. And on that note, after going through the book, I found a different book for £30 which offered the exact same information, and was written more clearly.

            Effectively what I'm saying is I'd be happy to pay an amount to do these courses, but not the amount their charging.

            If a book sells for £50, and the course teaches from that book, the course should be £50.

            If a book costs £50 and you require tools costing £50 the cost for the course should be £100

            If the course involves facetime with a teacher then it should cost additional sums, from my experience however the majority of the facetime is via lectures, many of these lectures taught stuff which was, you've guessed it, in the book. If these are done online they're generally pre-recorded and sent out again and again and again.

            Additionally I'd be perfectly happy to pay an additional sum for an official qualification at the end of the course as an option, or even without doing the course if I so chose. After all, there are some topics I know inside and out, but if I wanted a qualification in them, I'd need to spend X on a year long course which is useless to me, just so I could do the exam which takes a day.

            Effectively what I'm advocating is

            Cheap education, with an extra fee if people choose to get a qualification at the end. The reason its cheap is because of a lack of interaction with a lecturer.

            1. Phil W

              Re: Content should be free

              It's all very well saying if the book costs £50 and the course is taught from that book, the course should cost £50.

              But who's going to pay for the staff doing the teaching from that book?

              Sure for the most part it may seem like they're just reading the book to you.

              But what if you read the book, and don't understand something and need to ask questions?

              1. wowfood

                Re: Content should be free

                They generally reread that section of the book over and over, each time slightly slower then saying "So do you understand now?" Eventually you nod your head, and then go to google to get a real answer from daniweb or stackoverflow

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Content should be free

        Hmmm bullshit....

        Once the courses have been produced, they require little time or effort to keep them current and their dissemination costs fuck all from then on.

        Most online courses are bullshit - in content, congruety and accreditiation.

        Many of them are slapped together crap that goes no where.

        But it seems to be that SOME worthwhile courses actually ARE coming on stream, and they ought to be priced to their actual value, when disseminated to 100,000 students online instead of 200 students in class rooms.

        Most of the marking can be automated and for some subjects, minimal marking time is needed, by a real person in the real world.

        So the $100,000 courses, ought to be delivered for about $500 - 800 each.

  2. Blarkon

    In a good course you pay to access the instructor's knowledge

    If you've ever taken a course with a good instructor, what you're really paying for is access to their time over the course of a couple of days to have them answer any question you have about a specific technology. MOOCs may provide you with the basic content - but you can pretty much pick that up by looking at the product documentation if you've got the time. If you take an instructor led course on Exchange, the value is in being in the room with an expert on Exchange for a week.

    You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly. If you do, you ask for a refund. If you sit on a course where you know the instructor is a muppet, you're wasting your time and whoever paid for the course's money.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly

      But in a different educational context: In some cases, I have seen criticisms from undergraduate students with a very low opinion of their course and/or tutor lecturer. This can be because they don't understand how or why they're being taught in a particular way, rather than a failing of the course or staff. I also have heard that some 3rd year undergraduates have been known to make remarks to the effect that although they didn't like it at the time, they now appreciate how & why courses in previous years had been run that way.

      1. Phil W

        Re: You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly

        These sort of complaints tend to come from people who are practical by nature, when studying on an academically orientated course.

        For example computer science students complaining because they're learning all about binary maths and data modelling, but not learning how to build servers.

        To some degree I used to make those sorts of complaints, although I did enjoy the academic study.

        Now in my professional life, I appreciate the value of that academic teaching because when I get stuck with bizarre problems in practical work I have a solid theoretical knowledge to fall back on to help me fix it.

        It's hard to appreciate that when you're doing the study sometimes though.

        1. JDC

          Re: You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly

          If one student out of a hundred is making the complaint you can probably ignore it. If a sizeable group are making it - even if they then recant in the future - that to me seems to imply poor teaching, or at the very least poor communication of the aims of the course.

          1. Phil W

            Re: You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly

            It depends, if we're talking about Uni students at 18-21 years old, then chances are if one or two start whinging they all will. Even if they don't really feel that way.

            Also at that age they more often than not don't know what they need to learning, I certainly didn't even though I thought I did.

            1. JDC

              Re: You can figure out if the person presenting the course isn't an expert pretty quickly

              Whatever the cause, and I fully agree that it may not be justified or logical, the people running the course should be able to explain the reason for studying the subject - and I think it's reasonable for paying students (ie everybody these days!) to expect a decent answer.

  3. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

    How does that relate to the ratio for something like, say, the Open University - where the costs are not trivial (and since the UK university charging changes a couple of years ago, significant)? I've not seen figures, but personal conversation over the years has shown a much completion/pass rate - though my experience has been in the maths/technology arena which may not be representative.

    I liked the OU for its previous policy (whether intended or not) of 'cheap enough to do because it looks interesting, but expensive enough to make it worthwhile finishing'. I suspect a free online course doesn't have that same filtering effect and hence the much higher dropout rate.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

      I just want to chime in here on the OU point.

      I wound up dropping out of university. Our year was 'experimented' on. The first year was a shambles, we learnt nothing. Instead of doing Java we did Alice, this application was intended to teach OO principles, however you had to do stupid things like convert ints to strings to add them together (i shit you not). Not only that there was 0 code, it was all drag and drop.

      Alongside that we had a maths course nobody understood. Why didn't we understand it? It was being taught on terms with how we were expected to be learning Java. When it came to the explanations we had no idea what the lecturer was talking about.

      Then we had group project, which had 0 ICT involvement, networking which had no baring on the course topic, and videogames (it was a videogames course) where we literally played games. Oh and web, which was quite literally "visit w3 schools"

      The second year we had Java and C++, neither of which we could do since they were meant to be advancements of the java we didn't learn in the first year. Videogames advanced to design which was good, we also had BCS whcih was pointles. Process and software modelling which was somewhat useful.

      But the 2nd year was half as effective as it could have been due to the collosal fuckup of the first year. This meant by the end of year 2 were weren't prepared for the final year at all. A lot of people failed that course, or only got 3rds, we all blame the firs tyears fuckup.

      I ended up dropping out of the 3rd year simply because we hadn't been taught anything that would help us to pass by that point. My original plan was "I can get a job, save up some money and finish the course on the OU"

      And then they jacked the prices up. Meaning I'm left without any qualifications. Luckily for me I managed o get a programming job anyway thanks to doing a few projects on my own while looking for employment. But still would have been nice if OU hadn't jacked up its prices.

      1. hammarbtyp

        Re: With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

        To be fair to the OU, the price rise was not by choice but was due to the government funding reduction meaning the OU had to pass the real cost of the course not the subsidised cost.

        On the other hand you can now like any other degree take a loan out to cover the cost which is only paid back when you are earning X much.

        It's not the great but for a 21 year old looking to carry on there higher education its an option. The big problem is the older students who are not interested in completing a degree, but only want to expand the knowledge. Then the cost of the courses become and issue and maybe MOOC's will become the only option

      2. Ian Johnston Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

        The OU jacked up its prices because the government slashed its funding. The good news is that you could have transferred in credit for the study you had already done and, assuming you don't have a degree, you'd have been eligible for a loan for the remaining OU courses you needed to do.

    2. JDC

      Re: With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

      My experience with Coursera:

      Certainly I've signed up to courses, and then dropped out. Why shouldn't I? I take a look at the first week's lectures, see if it's what I'm expecting, and if not... I'm not paying anything, so no loss. I also had to drop out of another course halfway through - my entire family turned up to stay for a week, and there was no way I could both study and be with them. If I'd been paying I probably wouldn't have invited them, but...

      Another point is that the course workload is often considerably higher than advertised, which is something that needs to be worked on. Too often the students that first take the course are guinea pigs, with new materials that require extensive study beyond the course, etc. Where possible, take the second course offering - a lot of bugs will have been ironed out.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: With regard to the 20:1 ratio between entrance and success

      For individual modules, completion rate in the OU are generally between 70% and 90%. It's not so good for degrees: about 4,000 people a year start IT degrees and about 50 people a year graduate.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Professional certification

    Always wondered about the value of this.

    My field of IT is not cisco where their dominance seems to have meant their qualifications mean something and stay around for a while.

    Far too many employers have asked about certification (i.e. would like me to have some) but cannot name a single certificate they would like to see, nor provide any funding for obtaining any certification.

    I do have some qualifications, but they were issued by bodies that are not as well known as cisco and to be honest only gave a broad base of knowledge, nothing that useful.

    1. Phil W

      Re: Professional certification

      Without knowing what field of IT you're in (since you didn't say) it's hard to suggest, what employers might like to see.

      But CompTIA do a variety of courses in different fields.

      Or perhaps Microsoft certs of some kind?

    2. Ross K

      Re: Professional certification

      Far too many employers have asked about certification (i.e. would like me to have some) but cannot name a single certificate they would like to see, nor provide any funding for obtaining any certification.

      Ha ha been there - they want you to have a PhD, MCSE, CCIE and A+ before you start working for them.

      And they want you to work for 25k a year...

    3. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Professional certification

      >Always wondered about the value of this.

      Depends upon your career aspirations. Certainly having a professional qualification says more about you than just being able to tick the "attended a training course" box.

      I suspect that the reason why employers have asked you about certification is because they are trying to find out about your interests/passions and career trajectory.

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        Re: Professional certification

        Not all employers are like that. Ive employed 1 person with little in the way of qualifications (granted a 14k job but still better than minimum wage) based on the fact he had nonce about him and other skills (being a cadet force officer for one meant he knew how to deal with people). One of the programming team was a uni drop out too but could demonstrate knowledge on the interview programming test I devised. One masters degree candidate (some computer science whatever) couldnt finish the task.

  5. Aldous

    part time courses

    one day the uni's will relise that having part time course still take place during working hours mon-fri is ridiculous. First one to switch a major uni course to part time evenings/weekends only will see a huge influx.

    You can do most things via the OU but the sciences are hard, for example chemistry can not really be learned without a proper lab enviroment and safety kit

    1. Phil W

      Re: part time courses

      Oh you can learn chemistry without a proper lab and safety kit, but you can only if you get everything right first time.

      Get anything wrong and you + your house/garden shed will be left as a smoldering pile of rubble!

  6. Rob Morton

    Already there - IBM certification you just pay the test fee to the testing agency. Same with qualifications like SCJP though it's still a good idea to buy the official book.

    1. Danny 14 Silver badge

      you could probably argue that there is enough information out there for MS certs too, just pay for the exam.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So Cisco training courses are now free?

    That would explain why I am now receiving e-mails from Amazon Daily Deals to pay for them.

    BTW, how are Groupon doing these days?

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: So Cisco training courses are now free?

      >how are Groupon doing these days?

      There have been some good professional training deals on Groupon (and kgbdeals UK) this last year - recently Prince2 Practitioner training including certification has been on offer. However the majority have been for online study courses rather than 'classroom'. Interestingly, many deals have excluded the professional exam and/or panel assessment, which can be significant.

  8. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    “You're paying for the certification. That's where the value lies.”

    Not quite! Cisco is moving the revenue collection onto the place where they still can. Not the same.

    The value for CISCO lies in shifting kit at a later time. Fee collection from certification is a nice side-earner, but...

    The value for the candidate lies in higher future income. He pays for this with time and dedication. He may also pay for a teaching course in a proper classroom. He may also pay for a certification to more easily show to employers that he indeed attended said course. Does that need to come from CISCO? Not necessarily.

  9. wowfood

    So any links?

    As a complete morong without a qualification because it's too freakin' expensive. Can anyone post up any links to these MOOCs and which universities are offering them?

    Or a link to a location with links, I began looking into them when MIT first started theirs, but haven't really looked at it since.

    1. Dries Verachtert
      Thumb Up

      Re: So any links?

      There's an overview at:

      The most known MOOCs:

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    FREE video Games Courses ONLINE...

    Anyone found any worthwhile online video games courses...


    Unreal's UDK, Unity 3D, Cryengine...

    I've trawled through some of the free college offerings in the USA, but they're mostly general programming courses or math and economics courses, that sort of thing...

    1. Phil W

      Re: FREE video Games Courses ONLINE...

      "they're mostly general programming courses"

      Yes, they would be.

      Learning how to build a game using somebody else's game engine like UDK or Cryengine is not really a useful skill to bring to the industry. 5 (or less) years after you qualify most of what you learned will be irrelevant because Cryengine will have been abandoned and some new games company will have bought out a new engine.

      Learn programming, so you can build your own engine.

      Learn how to use OpenGL/DirectX, regardless of the language you program in, they're not about to go out of fashion any time soon.

      Learn graphic design in some of the major software package used for creating textures for games.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: FREE video Games Courses ONLINE...

        'Learn programming, so you can build your own engine.'

        1. Don't want to reinvent the wheel. Instead I want to focus on designing a game design not on programming a game engine...

        2. Its a savage amount of work to create a game engine, more work involved than creating an SDK/Compiler...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: FREE video Games Courses ONLINE...

      Unity recently improved its own free online training (at, but there are also plenty of others available.

  11. NinjasFTW
    Thumb Up

    fast track to certification

    As someone who has a lot of experience but few certifications in multiple technologies this would be great.

    My boss is generally happy to sign off expenses for exams (if you pass) but not so keen on training courses etc.

    I would be slightly concerned about the incentive for vendors to make people sit the same exam multiple times though....

    I guess as a downside though, the easier certifications are to get the more required they become to get past the HR drones initial resume scan

  12. Rich 11 Silver badge

    "While 154,763 students signed up for the first Circuits and Electronics course at MITx, a number Agarwal proudly pointed out is more than all of MIT's alumni for the last 100 years, just 26,349 took on the course's first problem set. 10,547 made it to the mid-term exam and 9,318 passed that test. 8,240 took the final exam, 7,157 of whom won the certificate on offer."

    I took a Coursera course, Introduction to Astronomy, to which 55,000 people signed up. All but about 10,000 dropped out by the second week (when the maths kicked in), and 8,000 went on to view all the video sets for the course. About 3,000 completed all the assignments and 2,200 received a certificate. It's interesting to see the proportions are roughly the same between the two sets of figures.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      I'm surprised the completion rates are this high. Not sure if I'm pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised, though.

      I've taken a handful of reasonably academic classes at my local supposedly top-rank Uni in the past couple of years - paid-for evening classes which yielded some form of academic credit, so not just "mildly interesting to keep the oldies amused". Even though they weren't free, the drop-out rate was about half.

      Half the courses were poorly presented; half had poor materials. One was completely mis-sold. The language class was the exception - but then, most students had a specific motivation.

      ( What utterly stunned me was the sample essay we were given, which had been marked as an A. My rant about it would be longer than the essay itself. )

      MOOCs will blow these away.

      But then I (and several thousand others apparently) signed up for a MOOC, again at one of our top-rank Unis, in an academic subject, and really, it turned out to be just a populist taster. Seven 20-40 minute chats on "this is my research field - isn't it shiny shiny". Yes, some interesting further reading.

      So ... who benefits? Well *obviously* it's a great way for the presenters to get themselves "published". They already have the course material, they just have to turn up and their employer pays to produce and distribute their online calling card.

      And the Uni can say "we have ten times as many virtual students as physical students". (So?)

      Well, I suppose, these MOOCs will give graduates something to take their minds off their day jobs at KFC. Better than Jeremy Kyle.

    2. LVS

      I actually did the MITx circuits and electronics course last year....I was one of the 7000 odd that completed it. I already hold a bachelors degree in electronics and work in the industry. I took the course partly to brush up on some of my rather rusty maths but mainly because I always wanted to study at MIT.

      The teaching software is great, being able to instantly re-watch bits of the lectures that I didn't quite understand was worth way more than the face to face tutelage I got in my real degree. The integration of the labs, homework and lectures onto one screen also made learning the stuff much easier. The labs and homeworks give you instant feedback on whether your answers are correct or not and you can easily flip from a lab back to a lecture to find out some detail that you didn't quite get the first time. In my real degree I'd have a couple of lectures in a week which resulted in a homework that I'd probably do another week later which would be marked and handed back two or three weeks after it was 4 to 6 weeks from attending the lecture to finding out if my understanding of the subject was correct?! If my understanding was not correct it was probably too late to do anything about it until the end of semester pre-exam cram. The immediacy of MITx was such a contrast to my real degree.

      Being able to sit in bed with a laptop, text book and a glass of wine also made it much more fun. I have to say that Prof Agarwal made my real world lecturers look like amateurs too.

      I can't say I'm surprised about the drop out rate though. The course was very time consuming, with a full time job and a daily two hour commute this course took up nearly all of my spare time for three months!!

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        do the certs hold any academic weight? - I dont mean as credits to say an FE qualification - I am thinking in terms of CPD etc. I might suggest this approach at the next staff meeting as a cheaper alternative to external courses.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Just as a marker, you might be interested to know that development costs for a 60 point course at the Open University (that's one year of half time study) are on average £2m. That covers academic time, editing, software development, production of AV materials and the like but does not include any presentation costs like tutors, marking and so on.

    Producing good quality material is very, very time consuming and expensive. In the wonderful world of MOOCS, who's going to pay for it?

    1. david 12

      Re: Costs

      >development costs for a 60 point course at the Open University ... are on average £2m.

      How much of that is bloat?

      You may have seen recent discusion in the USA about rise in cost of a college degree due to rise in administrative costs. This is just a sample:

      There hasn't been similar discussion in AUS because local students don't pay full fees, but it is just as much a problem. The university I am associated with just went through a classic consultant-led cost-cutting re-organisation, which resulted in centeralisation, higher administrative costs, and poorer administrative services. And the executive responsible has been re-contracted -- clearly he has top-level management skills at staying employed.

  14. Nifty Silver badge

    Gas and Electric in UK

    Has already fixed this by bringing out new twists every year in the regulations. To stay abreast, tradesmen have to take highly expensive certifications.

    The trade fights back: A typical gang of tradesmen will now complete the work then ship in one mate with the cert to sign off the installation.

  15. youmiserablegit

    Can't some institution offer...

    a course in grammar. That might be the best free course most folks could take. It could cover the correct usage of the following;

    * your, you're

    * there, their, they're

    * its, it's

    * to, too

    * lose, loose

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