Because of the news about all sorts of prestigious colleges joining Coursera, I decided to look over Coursera’s Course Catalog. They now have 111 courses, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that a medium-size institution like UCSC offers about 1000 undergrad courses every quarter.
I’m having trouble getting an exact count, as there does not seem to be an easily accessible report of total numbers of distinct courses offered—I can get some information about the number of different sections of undergrad (that is, distinct classroom assignments) at around 1300 from the course schedule, and the number of undergrad courses taught in a year by tenure-track faculty as about 1000 a year, but the first has a lot of duplication and the second excludes the huge number of courses taught by lecturers or instructors who are not tenure-track. Also, I only counted undergrad courses, but 37% of the course tenure-track faculty teach are grad courses.
In any case, it is clear that Coursera is offering only a tiny fraction of what their member universities offer. A lot of the courses look like they were chosen more as advertisements than as substance—picking some of the most popular courses as a “look how great we are” come-on to get people to attend the university. Nothing wrong with that, and probably the only way the universities can justify the enormous expense of a MOOC (massive open online course), given that they bring in no direct revenue to cover their expenses. [I think MOOC actually stands for massively over-hyped online course.]
A lot of the courses that are offered are the “book learning” courses that require no lab facilities, no face-to-face discussions, and no close mentoring. They are the easiest courses to offer, but the ones least likely to save universities much by switching to an online format (those sorts of lecture classes are already relatively cheap per student).
One exception is computer science classes, since the specialized equipment needed for CS courses is now so cheap that just about anyone who can access on-line courses has the necessary equipment already, and much of the software needed for CS courses is available free (often open-source). If grading the courses is reduced to low-quality automatic checking of programs (a travesty that has already happened in some brick-and-mortar CS courses), then there is nothing stopping the scaling of fairly advanced courses to MOOCs.
Coursera, Udacity, and other MOOC providers are riding a wave of venture capital, but I’ve yet to hear a coherent business plan from any of them. At some point the capital will run out, and unless some way of paying the developers and maintainers is found (Coursera has 20 people on their “team page”), the companies will collapse.
I suggest that people who want to participate in one of the MOOCs do so in the next year, because it is not clear whether the idea will find a way to become self-sustaining or not. Right now, the courses are free because they are heavily subsidized. That subsidy is unlike to last long.