I’m currently in the middle of a virtual education class at Coursera and there was a discussion about MOOC‘s and there was a brief discussion about whether to charge or not to charge for the course. I’ve encountered this topic with online educational materials (courses, etc) that I’ve put up on the web, as well as some other areas not related to education.
There are some benefits, and some detractions to charging for a course. The following is a list of some of the things to consider when considering charging for an online course.
I need to pay my rent
This is humorous, but the fact of the matter is regardless of who you are, you have bills to pay, and that means having money. Unless you happen to be independently wealthy, online education can serve as a source of income. When considering whether or not to charge for online content, ask yourself the question whether revenue generated for this course will help you with these needs.
Now for some, as we look at the concept of charging for classes (and some of the downsides we discuss later) and the actual revenue generated may not be worth it. If you’re someone that has a full time job and gets paid well, the revenue you are likely to get from an online course may not be sufficient to justify charging for the class.
I want to reach as many people as I can
Statistics show that free online courses tend to have a greater number of students (by several orders of magnitude) than paid courses. A lot of individuals on the Internet balk at paying for anything. While we’d like to place judgement on this sociological phenomenon, from a practical standpoint, we have to realize that free classes means more students. If we’re simply trying to get the information out there, and revenue is not a concern, an online class being free tends to significantly drive up participation.
The Administration of accepting payment creates overhead
If you do take payment for classes you need to realize that there’s administrative overhead associated with this process, and you’ll need to establish the process from a technical standpoint to accept payment. Now Paypal, the new Apple Pay, and other online sources make it relatively simple (for a fee) to take payment, we still have to set up accounts, track payments, fill out information on our tax return, and more the minute we start taking payment. I’ve talked to a number of educators that say “I just don’t want to hassle with it.” That’s not an unreasonable choice, but if you make that choice, obviously you won’t make any money off of your hard work.
When someone pays for a class, they can set expectations
When a class is free, the instructor has the ability to uniformly set the expectation levels in terms of delivery. If a student doesn’t like what they are getting, the instructor is completely free to say “Hey its free, and this is what you get for free.” If you take payment, it becomes important to set, and effectively communicate what the student can expect for the money they have spent. As an example, I offer an online course where the lectures are recorded. There are assignments and forums, but I only check them once a week at best. I don’t charge for this class, so a student can’t come back and have any standing to say “I asked a question two weeks ago, and you didn’t answer it.” Well the can complain, but I can respond with a “Life was busy” or some other truthful response.
If I was charging for this class, I’d need to put in a page where I explained how often I checked for questions, and also make sure the student read that material before they paid for the class.
In free classes, most students start classes, but never finish them
The common trend on the Internet is that if classes are free, the vast majority of students don’t finish the entire class. If the pay for it, even if its a low amount, they are vested in completing the course. If your objective is to make sure that students complete all the materials, you’ll probably want to charge something (even if its $1) to give them the incentive to complete the class.