The Fools of Academia

One man’s belly flop is another’s bonanza!

With a college undergraduate degree costing up to $50,000 a year, I am fascinated by MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses that are free. Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun enrolled 160,000 students worldwide in his artificial intelligence course.

According to Tamar Lewin’s “After Setback, Online Courses Are Rethought” in The New York Times, the entire MOOC concept is now considered a total flop. That’s because a recent study revealed on average half of the online registrants never viewed a single session and only about 4 percent completed the course.

4% Completion! That’s Dazzling!
Compare it to a direct marketing continuity program. A 4 percent completion is A HUGE SUCCESS!—in this case 6,400 graduates!

Here’s the obvious business model. Offer the course for free. Students who complete the course can take a proficiency exam online and receive official college credits. Charge: $30 per credit. Number of credits needed for an undergraduate degree: 128.

Benefit to the student: Total cost of an undergrad degree $30 x 128 is $3,840 (vs. $200,000 + transportation and living expenses at a brick-and-mortar college).

Benefit to the online school: If 50 percent of the 6,400 completers go for the degree and the course is worth 3 credits ($90), that’s $288,000 revenue.

At what cost? One professor, a cheapsy-weepsy TV camera and operator in the back of the classroom.

Record the thing, make it available 24/7 and the revenue is automatic—forever!

It’s beautiful! Note the photo of hotshot, expansive Professor Thrun in the media player at right. He is showing off his newfangled Google glass (cost $1,500). No doubt it enables him to perpetually look up his rear end.

Takeaways to Consider

  • Before declaring any test a failure, rethink the business model.
  • Automate your fulfillment and you have perpetual income.
  • In the case of Professor Thrun, he has a gorgeous list of 160,000 smart people. Many of them no doubt already have college degrees and should be open to all kinds of offers.
  • My suggestion to Prof. Thrun: Read my farewell salute to Axel Andersson, who made a personal fortune building Europe’s largest home study school, the Axel Andersson Akademy.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

Related Content
  • CollegeDebt

    Except that at a price of $3,840, it cheapens the value of the $200K education so much that nobody does that, and the schools go belly up.

  • Tim Orr

    Good points all, Denny!

    One thing that might be worth considering: Free sometimes lessens value. A friend offered Saturday computer courses at his store. At first, he made them free, and attendance was pitiful. Then he tested, and tried charging just $3 apiece for each session. Attendance soared, and when people who had signed up couldn’t make it, they often called to apologize. Some recent psychological studies have shown that when we’re looking into the future, we plan and even buy things we never would if we were considering only this instant. So a lot of people sign up then don’t attend. If there were even a tiny financial bite to failing to follow through, maybe they’d do so.

  • DM executive

    Up to $50,000 for an undergraduate degree? Please check your facts, that number is way out of date. Tuition can run up to $50,000 for just 1 year. That makes a degree more like $200,000.

  • Davidka

    I think courses like these are going to be a shock wave to the traditional college education model.

    For any particular course, there are poor teachers, okay teachers, excellent teachers and a few superstars who the students remember for the rest of their lives and often deeply influence them. That was true for me as an undergraduate and as a law student, and I’m sure it is true for everyone else. Providing courses online allows students to pick and choose only the superstar teachers and thousands, or hundreds of thousands, to "attend" their lectures.

    Some critics will argue that the student loses the great value of personal interaction with the professor. Most students have little or no interaction with the professor. In standard intro courses, there may be hundreds of students in a brick and mortar college. The professor doesn’t even know the students’ names, except for the girls he is having sex with.

    Another advantage of online courses: the student can get EXACTLY what he needs. For example, most colleges’ marketing and advertising programs slight direct marketing or have nothing at all. With online courses, one can get exactly the information from the geniuses of the industry.

    There are many tweaks for this idea. For instance, plenty of students would be happy to pay $30 to $150 up front for an outstanding course. Do the (astonishing) math.

    Another advantage is that the competition of online courses will force the surviving colleges to reduce their rapacious charges.

  • Ben Gay

    Thank you, Denny! You never fail to teach something important and timely.

  • Reginald Doherty

    "Nothing sells like FREE." "When you’re handed a lemon, make lemonade." "The glass is half full, not half empty." These quotes speak to points of view. I believe online podcasts are the answer to time shifting, where someone can do it when they want, not when it’s scheduled. Times are achanging, quickly!

  • James Leach

    What a great post. Thank you! If that fool professor set up a "coaching program" to go with those 6400 students who graduated or another one to motivate the others who didn’t — he would have a gold mine just with that. It looks to me like they still view the internet — a very personal medium — like an old time television slot — a very broad medium. One word comes to mind — clueless.

  • George Hague

    Denny – Brilliant idea. You should contact Stanford and other schools to pitch it.

    -George Hague

  • Marketer

    Great article. Just one more reason that academia should stay out of running the country as they have NO practical experience in the real world.

  • Judy Colbert

    I have a problem with most people who have been graduated from Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. They are convinced that they know everything and will not listen to suggestions or comments from someone who did not because they obviously are inferior intellectually.

    Keep up the good work!

  • BDM

    Denny – "considered a flop" by the New York Times. Consider the source. The NYT always has an ax to grind. We can all ponder their motives for considering MOOC a flop.