Profiting from Massive Open Online Courses

Part of the Dynamics of Virtual Work book series (DVW)


This chapter opens with a discussion of MOOCs (massive open online courses). In 2018 there were some 101 million enrolled “learners” in one or more of the 11,400 courses offered by these platforms. While there are several not-for-profit MOOCs, many of them are aimed at making money, and Coursera, our case study, is the leader of the pack. The company currently has some 37 million learners and made roughly USD 140 million in revenues in 2018. Revenues come from charging individuals, companies and universities for different services (such as certifications on the completion of freely accessible courses). Profits are to some extent based on unpaid knowledge delivered by teachers through online classes. In most cases teachers are paid once for these classes, or receive no additional payment at all, despite the fact that they are streamed several times to huge numbers of “learners”. Some 900 universities partner with Coursera and are positioned as middlemen: they lawfully provide the courses developed by their teachers, contribute with some kind of “trademark” and deliver recognition (the certification, degree, etc.) to the learners in exchange for some of Coursera’s revenues. This is only possible due to some intellectual property regulations and contracts that we discuss in detail. But for this exploitative relation to succeed, ideology is also needed. In this case, we analyze the role played by specific vocabulary (“learners”, “partners”, “instructors”), concepts (such as freedom, openness, community, peers) and the association between value and labor time.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linnaeus UniversityVäxjöSweden
  2. 2.Södertörn UniversityHuddingeSweden
  3. 3.National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET)Buenos Aires CityArgentina

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