That's free for the students for sure! But how much does it cost for a university to adapt and deploy a course on a MOOC? A simple question to which I will try to answer.
Since few months, we are witness of the rising of an industrial revolution in education, with the rapid emergence of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). Some of the top American universities, like Stanford, Harvard and the MIT, use MOOC as a powerful leverage in the globalization of their activities.
Without being an economist, I would like to discuss the economic aspects of MOOC. These aspects are fundamental because beyond the MOOC's technology revolution, the principal upheaval for universities stands in the new economic model on which MOOC are based.
In addition, borrowing the language of accounting, I secretly nourished the hope to attract the attention of the participants to the upcoming « Sommet sur l'éducation supérieure du Québec », where people should discuss about the future of Québec's universities, but who seem to live in a world of columns of numbers. Well, it reminds me the movie "The Matrix" ;)
Indeed, the main promise of MOOC is the prospect of a university with no walls and totally free! We speak about annual costs per user which start from few cents to few dollars at most.
To convince us, some basic arithmetic ...
Here, we will use the figures published by Google at the HICSS Conference held in January 2013  and on the experience of Scott E. Page, a MOOC's pioneer  which taught two times the course «Thinking Model » on the Coursera .
For the Coursera's version of his course which he calls himself « Garage Band Version », Mr. Page used a $ 20 camera, a 100 $ microphone and the studio was in a room of his home. Moreover, Mr. Page felt he had took between 6 to 8 hours of work for each hour of class to adapt the content to the Coursera format.
So a 45-hour course represents between 270 and 360 hours of work for a plain product without animated graphics, music or special effects. With an hourly rate of $ 55 (about $ 100 000 per year) which is far from the minimum wage in Québec, it results to a cost for the adaptation from 15 000 to $ 20 000. But it is well known that our teachers earn less... Moreover, these expenses are non-recurring, you do the work only once and after you can replay the course as many times as you want, even you should retype or update few bits.
To this, we must add around one hundred hours for the course's animation (10 hours per week during 10 weeks) that which gives $ 5 500. Now, look at the costs of massive online diffusion of your course. Well, with today's web technology called cloud computing, it would cost less than $ 10 000 per year to serve 150 000 students. More precisely, around $ 20 per day to serve 150 000 students using the Google AppEngine cloud technology .
Jumping over a lengthy arithmetic development (!), which we leave to the « real accountants », we arrive to under 25 cents per student per year. Some people must now understand why Web giants give us free gigabytes on their web 2.0 sites and allowed us to record anything we want on their video sharing sites.
Obviously, we are talking of a course which is already prepared, then we are not starting from scratch. Our small evaluation also excludes software costs since there are now several open software platforms for MOOC which are available. Finally, we must consider part-time work of a handful of skilled IT professionals to deploy and maintain a platform in the cloud that can support not only one but several hundred online courses.
It will be objected that we can foresee deluxe scenarios using $ 100,000 camera, with many teams of pre-production, production and post-production and armies of overpaid consultants. We let the accountants and auditors consider these unfortunate scenarios which are called cost overruns.
But this is another debate ...
 D. Russell M. (2013, January 7). Overview of MOOCs at Google. January 7, 2013. MOOC Symposium, 46 HICSS (Hawaii International Conference On System Sciences), Maui, HI, Usa
 Roche, G. (2013, January 22). Thoughts from a MOOC Pioneer - Academic Technology. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://at.blogs.wm.edu/thoughts-from-a-mooc-pioneer/
Le billet original en français