Cheap MOOCs for Sale at ASU: Deal With edX to Offer Online Option for Freshmen

A deal between Arizona State University and edX, a nonprofit Internet firm, aims to give future freshmen the option to take their first year entirely in MOOCs.

The announcement by edX and ASU comes after a flurry of news articles last year critical of the "massive open online courses," which allow thousands of students to take the same class at once.

See also: -Crow: ASU-Starbucks Deal to Add 15,000 Online Students Toward Goal of 100,000

The firm and ASU officials are selling the partnership as a way to give more people the chance to earn college degrees and help society as a whole. While ASU and edX stand to reap a potential windfall, any computer user can take the classes for free. Students can register to pay $45 for the option of counting the work for college credit but pay the full price of up to $200 per credit hour only if they pass. Sounds like a win-win, at first blush.

The "Global Freshman Academy" program "is designed to allow learners to earn university credit as simply as possible and without any barriers or restrictions," according to the edX site. The first ASU/edX MOOC will be a four-credit, eight-week astronomy class starting August featuring well-regarded astronomer Frank Timmes as instructor.

History and human origins classes are scheduled to begin in October. Composition classes, which will require ASU educators to read and grade thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of essays, reportedly will come later. (The service will be for paying customers only, we imagine.) MOOCs are known for their pre-recorded video lectures, peer reviews of work, multiple-choice quizzes, and 24-hour convenience. They often get the job done -- and maybe that's all that matters.

Yet a plethora of articles last year suggest ASU's new program could be a boondoggle. According to an October 2014 New York Times opinion column, "Following the 'hype cycle' model for new technology products developed by the Gartner research group, MOOCs have fallen from their 'peak of inflated expectations' in 2012 to the 'trough of disillusionment.'"

EdX's research of its own courses show that, as with other MOOC providers, about 80 percent of people taking the courses already have college degrees, the column by Jeffrey J. Selingo states. But Selingo concludes on a positive note, saying that despite their drawbacks, "the courses have become an important supplement to classroom learning and a tool for professional development."

ASU President Michael Crow made a deal last year to offer reduced online-class pricing for Starbucks employees (whose tuition would be reimbursed by the company), and has publicized plans to sign up 100,000 people for online classes by 2020. ASU's pushing the ASU deal as an alternative to community college -- or even its own typical in-person freshman courses.

According to, ASU Online students pay $480 to $543 per credit hour:

"In other words, earning credit through MOOCs may be less than half as expensive as a traditional online or in-person course.

"ASU and edX have yet to finalize details of how they will share tuition revenue, although an eventual agreement may resemble the contracts the MOOC provider has signed with its other university partners. "I think it's 50-50," (Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives), said. "The split between ASU and edX won't be dissimilar to that."

With the state cutting tens of millions of dollars from university budgets, this also seems to be one way to save on teachers' salaries: Far fewer live professors are needed with MOOCs.

UPDATE April 24: The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting follow-up on this story, reporting that the MOOCs won't be covered by financial aid.

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