To begin answering this, it is necessary to look at the motivations of the different actors in the field of free online education.
- The traditional universities:
The origin of the MOOCs as we know them today can be traced back to a corridor in Stanford University’s Computer Science department where Sebastian Thrun (founder of Udacity), Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (co-founders of Coursera) use to have their offices.
If the enthusiasm generated by the original AI class can surely be explained in a large part by the power of the Stanford brand. Universities now reversely seek to expand their brand by offering attractive free online courses.
Universities are therefore prepared to incur the costs of these courses to showcase their excellence in some chosen fields.
- The course platforms:
The course platforms fall into two categories: for profit companies backed by venture capital (Coursera and Udacity) and open-source endeavour backed either by universities (edX) or companies (Canvas). Both Coursera and Udacity plan to charge companies wishing to identify and recruit its top students. The motivation for those bankrolling the open-source platform on the other hand has more to do with gather data for pedagogical research.
- The professors:
Although Udacity is directly paying professors for the courses it is developing in house, others see it as an extension of their job (Google, Microsoft, Autodesk and Nvidia offer courses taught by their employees on Udacity) and bona fide tenured university professor are probably very happy to reach many more students, raise their profile inside and outside of the institution... and considerably increase the sales of their books.
To conclude, for the moment the actual cash comes from VC firms, traditional universities. The hope being that potential employers will eventually mostly be footing the bill.
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