Creating a Cost-benefit analysis MOOC for an international audience

What does it take to make a successful MOOC course for an international audience?

Take a relevant course topic for which there is not yet an international MOOC, mix it with a strong, in-house expertise both subject-specific and pedagogical, adequate funding, infrastructures, and marketing services and here you have a MOOC catering to an international audience. The AGERE-master digileap set out on creating such a MOOC. This is a story of what went right (luckily a lot) and what not so much, and of what we learned in the process that could benefit our learning community here at the University of Helsinki.

What went right… (luckily a lot)

The mastermind of the course and lecturer, Väinö Nurmi, has a strong scientific expertise on the theory and application of Cost-benefit analysis and an excellent understanding of pedagogy (he won in 2019 the Best teacher award at our faculty). This allowed the AGERE-digileap to produce a pedagogically sound, scientifically rigorous and up to date course.  With the funding from the digileap-project, we freed the time for Väinö to focus on the development of the course. We could also pay Unigrafia for the production of good-quality videos. Excellent support from educational technology services and last but not least, active, motivated students did the rest. The Cost-benefit analysis MOOC was offered for the first time in the spring 2019 will be offered again in the spring of 2020.

and what not so much

A not-so-reliable infrastructure in the lecture room created a good degree of suspense: will the streaming service work? What sounds will come out of the microphone, if any? Will the recording of the session succeed? Unfortunately, taking the digital leap at our university still requires lectures to struggle with unreliable and limited infrastructures. It needn’t be so.

What about the international audience? Lack of infrastructures and marketing tools as the key constraint

Cost-benefit analysis is a tool for projects and policy analysis that is very relevant for a wide audience including environmental consultants, government officials and prospective international students. When we set out in developing this course, we surveyed the educational offer for MOOCs on Cost-benefit analysis on the two main providers of MOOCs internationally: EdX and Coursera. Although there are several courses, which include a single lecture on Cost-benefit analysis (see e.g. Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age by the University of Michingan or Environmental Management & Ethics by the Technical University of Denmark on Coursera), we could not find any courses focused specifically on Cost-benefit analysis. How lucky we are, we thought, there is an unexploited niche and we could fill it first.

Unfortunately, we had to face the fact that the University of Helsinki is still ill-equipped to offer an international MOOC. After inquiries with the Open University and HY+, we  learned that:

  • There is no administrative mechanism to register university credits to non-degree students, who do not have a Finnish social security number
  • There is no proctoring service, a key element for being able to issue verified certificates of completion of the MOOC to participants.

For those unfamiliar with proctoring, proctoring is a tool to check the identity of the student taking the course exam and to verify that no cheating is taking place (or at least to greatly reduce the opportunities for cheating). During a proctored exam, a proctoring software monitors the student’s computer’s webcam, both in video and audio, and the desktop. The proctoring service can thus verify the identity of the students taking the exam and check for cheating. The use of proctoring software is a key element of a state of the art MOOC and is used by both major platforms offering international MOOCs: ExD (see e.g. How do proctored exams work?) and Coursera (see e.g. ProctorU).

If the student cannot get a verified certificate of completion for the MOOC, he has a much weaker incentive to take the course as it is not likely to be recognized as further education by current and prospective employers.

Moreover, lack of an assurance system means that it is not possible to charge a fee to cover the cost of additional services related to the MOOC such as teachers’ (rather than automatically) graded assignments, and mentorship. These costs are by definition variable, the larger the number of students, the higher the costs.

At this point, you might wonder: Shouldn’t MOOC be completely free? Let me tell you then, about the business model of Coursera and EdX. Both platforms offer a wide range of online courses and allow free audit of most of them thus the name Open Online Course. However, these platforms may require students to pay a course fee to access additional services and get a verified certificate of completion. These fees can be set just to cover the variable costs of providing the course including proctoring or to a higher level in order to provide the university with an additional source of net income.

As there is no way to register credits nor to offer verified certificates (lack of proctoring), what the AGERE-digileap can offer after the financing period is over, is open access to all MOOC learning materials and to automatically graded tests.

Lack of proctoring-infrastructures has implications also for the domestic online courses market and the Open University pathway

The lack of a proctoring infrastructure raises issues of fairness and quality assurance for those online courses that rely on unsupervised online exams and that are included in the Open University pathway (avoin väylä). Ar present, there is no effective way to ensure that the student who gets the credits was actually the one who took, unaided, the exam. Thus, students who cheat may get a place in a study program at the expense of those who play by the rule.

How can the international audience find our course?

Marketing the Cost-benefit analysis MOOC is proving very challenging. The university of Helsinki, unlike several universities in Europe such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Imperial College, Sorbonne, Wageningen, just to mention a few,  has not joined any of the platforms offering MOOCs such as Coursera or EdX. Therefore, it has no platform which caters to the marketing of its MOOCs internationally. This, together with the impossibility of offering verified certificates of completion of the MOOC limits greatly our incentives and ability to market the course internationally and domestically.

What is the University of Helsinki vision and strategy for the future concerning international MOOCs?

International MOOCs offer numerous opportunities to universities today. They can help recruit international master students and be an important source of additional income via certified online courses for further education.  It is high time that the University of Helsinki develops a well-articulated strategy for international MOOCs. We also need to have a discussion on the certification of online exams and the use of tools like proctoring, especially as the Open University pathway importance in recruiting student increases.

In conclusion

The AGERE-program is very grateful for the possibility to embark in this MOOC-adventure and for the financing received by the Digileap Project. Our criticism stems from the recognition of the untapped potential benefits of MOOC courses and the desire to stimulate a discussion on how to make it possible to reap these benefits.

You can find the Cost-benefit analysis MOOC at


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