Marketplaces like Udemy vs. MOOC platforms like Coursera : what is the difference ?

Udemy - Silicon ValleyUnlike MOOC platforms like Coursera or edX, online marketplaces like Udemy or Skillshare allow anyone to broadcast courses and charge for them, and this key difference with MOOC platforms is rarely acknowledged. I have published a paper with a student of mine a couple of years ago, if you can read French : “ Marketplaces ” de l’apprentissage en ligne : appréhender les stratégies des instructeurs ». Today, I propose a post, in English for a change, on these online marketplaces because an increasing number of the students of the Bachelor in Data Science I teach in follow these classes when they are not satisfied with mines, and I think it is interesting to understand how the situation may evolve.

Even if marketplaces focus on lucrative topics (Business, Creativity, etc.), MOOC platforms like Coursera or edX and marketplaces like Udemy intersect to some extent on topics such as Data Science and Computer Science. From the point of view of learners’ motivations, MOOCs and marketplaces target different niches. Since individual instructors cannot compete with an institution when it comes to brand recognition, they target learners who intend to master course material more than they try to obtain credentials, while MOOC designers rely on the reputation of their organization to sell certificates. How these differences in targets translate into course characteristics is still to be assessed. MOOCs’ certificate-based Business Model (BM) and Skillshare’s streaming BM (instructors’ revenues depend upon the number of minutes of videos viewed) have in common that they do not benefit from churn (drop out).

I believe that it is not in the interest of instructors who rely on a Streaming model to challenge learners with difficult content and various prerequisites that could hinder retention. We believe the situation to be opposite in the case of the certificate-based BM (like in MOOCs, that sell certificates). All things being equal, if a certificate is known to be difficult to obtain, it will hold more value on the job market and enrollees will therefore be more likely to buy it. Research on the way that MOOCs’ certificates is perceived on the job market dates to the first wave of mostly entirely free courses, when these online courses were not fully established. We still do not know how the shift from free topaying certificates in MOOCs impacted both course characteristics and credentials’ receptions by employers. Nevertheless, we can hypothesize that it may have increased the difficulty of the evaluation process, at least in the case of instructors that care about the revenues that their courses generate.

Marketplaces attract a diverse set of instructors, some being outreach-driven, some being income-driven. In Udemy or Skillshare, the strong intra-platform competition among teachers incentivizes marketplaces’ instructors to choose carefully the topics that they teach. However, competition extends beyond marketplaces, and encompasses MOOCs, where the content is partly free. MOOC platforms like Coursera or edX and marketplaces intersect to some extent. It is for instance possible to find on both types of platforms courses on Data Science and Computer Science that have a lot of content in common. To what extent do MOOC platforms like Coursera and edX overlap with marketplaces when it comes to audiences? The composition of the market seems to have become increasingly complicated, as companies also started producing content on similar topics – LinkedIn Learning was one of the most notorious examples in this field. Further research into the course material is needed to assess how similar classes are amongst platforms.

It is likely that in the coming decades, platforms broadcasting courses from notorious institutions of higher education or well-funded companies will increasingly compete with platforms whose instructors work without any affiliation, sometimes from home. It would fulfill to some extent the predictions that Ivan Illich had made in Deschooling Society: the rise of horizontal networks of knowledge, where learning would stop being the preserve of educational institutions because individuals would share their knowledge openly. Some authors believed that we had witnessed the concretization of such ideas through the first wave of connectivist MOOCs, where scholars were only facilitating interactions among learners. But such online courses only represented a fraction of the MOOC wave, both in terms of audience and number of courses.

Marketplaces, on the other hand, gather tens of thousands of instructors and millions of users. From that point of view, they seem to represent a step further into the direction of the philosopher’s prediction, especially because their business models allow them to grow steadily, which was not the case of cMOOCs. What Illich had not foreseen is that such networks could represent business opportunities that numerous companies would try to seize. It is now up to the scientific community to analyze how the monetization of such networks impacts the online learning landscape.

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