What happens when free courses aren’t free?
About a month before the semester started, someone posted a link for Scott Klemmer’s free online HCI course to the Facebook page for our HCI master’s program. My new master’s students both signed up and watched the lectures (but didn’t actually do the assignments). What a wonderful way to get ready for your new degree program!
I asked today: would you have done that if it wasn’t free? And got an answer of “probably not.” Even if the cost was low, they probably wouldn’t have signed up. Free online classes are all the rage lately, but I wonder what happens when people start trying to charge for them.
In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes that “Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button.” Consider this experiment. Ariely offered students a Lindt truffle for 15 cents or a Hershey’s kiss for one cent. Given the value proposition, 73 percent chose the truffle. Next, he lowered the prices by one cent: the truffle was now 14 cents and the kiss free. And now 69 percent chose the free kiss! Ariely points out that standard economic theory does not predict this outcome. His interpretation is that “most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is FREE! we forget the downside.”
In our daily news summary sent out to GT faculty today, there were twelve blurbs on free online courses (“MOOCs”). This stuff is all the rage. Some online course providers are hoping to support them with advertising revenue or by selling names of stellar students to headhunters looking to hire highly qualified people. But others are hoping to start charging for them. And I think they have a surprise in store: free is not just another price. My students say they wouldn’t have paid for their HCI course, even if the fee was tiny, unless they got degree credit for it. Courses for money are a different ball game entirely.