A recent move by Coursera, one of the largest Online education providers, validates a new online learning model where knowledge is given away for free, but assessment is paid for.

The answer is to separate Knowledge acquisition from knowledge assessment.  Essentially this means that the act of acquiring knowledge should be either totally free, or should so inexpensive as to virtually approach free.  Since all the work by educators is in knowledge assessment, that is where value should be assigned and money change hands.

This approach appears to be gaining acceptance.  When enrolling in a MOOC on Coursera, learners are normally met with a box asking them if they would like to take it free — giving them access to all the course materials but not awarding a certificate upon completion — or pay $49 for an identity-verified course certificate provided upon completion. Learners can first pick the free option but change their minds later, however.

“You can sign up to earn a course certificate anytime — even after you’ve started a course,” Coursera explains on its website. “Once signed up, you’ll quickly verify your identity each time you submit an assignment. Verifying your work is free, and you can choose to pay for the certificate whenever you’re ready.”

In this approach Coursera allows learners who choose not to pay are free to “explore,” Coursera said in a blog post. That means they get access to course materials such as video lectures, discussion boards and practice quizzes, but view-only access to graded assignments. To turn the course materials into an actual course, learners have to pay.

Coursera’s shift resembles the trajectory of another MOOC provider out of Stanford University: Udacity. In 2013, the founder and CEO, Sebastian Thrun, announced the start-up would shift away from free online education to focus on paid vocational programs. Udacity has since invested in building microcredential programs known as nanodegrees — many of them in computer science — with industry partners such as AT&T and Google.


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