With ‘verified certificates,’ Coursera offers model for making money from web classes

If 2012 was the year MOOCs (massive open online courses) captured the country’s imagination, is this the year we start to see if they can be a money-making reality?

Over the past few months, online education startups Coursera and Udacity — both of which launched barely a year ago — have started to pull back the curtain on their revenue-generating plans. In December, Coursera launched an employer-matching service in which it receives payment for identifying students who might make for good job candidates. Udacity has indicated that it has begun to make money in similar fashion.

On Wednesday, Coursera announced the beginning of a new service that it’s said will be its biggest source of revenue: selling “verified certificates” to students who opt to have their identity authenticated.

“It offers students a better way to show off their work,” said co-founder Andrew Ng. “It’s for job seekers and people who think it might be useful – if you think you might be looking for a job ten years from now … You can show a potential employer that you can complete these courses offered by the top schools.”

Photos, keystroke matching authenticate identity

The new option, called the Signature Track, is available on a course-by-course basis and will cost from $30 to $100, depending on the kind of class.

When students sign up for the track, they’re asked to take a picture of both themselves and a form of identification, as well as type a short phrase to create a biometric profile. Whenever they submit an online assignment, Coursera will attempt to match the keystrokes to make sure the students are who they say they are and not imposters recruited to ace an assignment. Assuming they successfully complete the course, students will receive an electronic certificate from the school and Coursera, and they’ll be able to share a detailed record of their course performance with anyone online.

These certificates will not count towards degrees, but Coursera is working with the American Council on Education (ACE) and credit equivalency for its courses is on the horizon.

At launch, the verified certificate program only includes five classes from four universities, including a nutrition health class from the University of California, San Francisco; a computational investing class from Georgia Tech; a microeconomics course from the University of Illinois and an introductory Duke class on genetics and evolution.

I think it’s telling that, so far, Duke is the only one of Coursera’s many brand name schools to sign on (no offense to you Bears, Yellow Jackets and Illini faithful out there). Ng said they expect others to ultimately join the program and I expect that others will participate as well, but you can see why top-tier schools might want to take a wait-and-see approach. A Harvard degree isn’t the same thing as a Harvard certificate and schools likely want to be sure that they can expand their reach without diluting their brand.

Certificates could make students more visible to potential employers

It will also be interesting to see the kinds of students who sign up for the certificates and how they’re able to use them. While $30 isn’t an unreasonable price to pay for a credential, most students likely wouldn’t pay too much more unless they expected to see a professional pay off. At the very least, Ng said students in the Signature Track will likely be more visible to employers recruiting through the site but the company has not yet determined how much weight the certificates will carry.

Ng said that he and co-founder Daphne Koller, both of whom are Stanford professors, “are not out to monetize, [but to] give everyone an education” — and their commitment to offering free courses, as well as financial aid to students who can’t afford the certificates, shows that their incentives are in line with their students’. But they still need to show their university partners and the rest of the MOOC-infatuated mob that they can create a sustainable business.  Coursera’s model is just one of several that are starting out but, given its traction among students and top-tier schools, its outcomes could provide insight into what’s to come.

Image from ryabinina via Shutterstock.