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Strengthening resilience in the online learning ecosystem

To boost resilience in the online learning ecosystem, the Freemium model helps to create a virtuous cycle from production to consumption.

The emergence of the knowledge economy has heightened individuals’ awareness of the monetary value of knowledge. Consequently, more individuals are willing to pay for high-quality information. This trend presents a significant opportunity for learning communities to establish an economically sustainable online ecosystem.

Achieving the economic sustainability of online learning communities through fee structures has also become a critical concern for industry leaders. In 2020, Coursera introduced Coursera Plus, a subscription plan that grants learners unlimited access to over 90% of the online courses available on the platform. Most Coursera courses follow the “freemium” model (Figure 1). This enables learners to audit the course and watch videos for free while charging for certification and graded assignments.

Similarly, NetEase Online Open Courses, one of China’s online learning platforms, entices learners to purchase paid courses through free trial offerings. However, current academic research on online learning mainly focuses on building online learning communities from social and environmental perspectives, with limited attention given to the economic aspect.

Figure 1. Illustration of the freemium business model
Credit. Author

Learners’ willingness to purchase online courses is crucial in creating an economically sustainable online learning community. This is because profitability is essential for the community to continue offering valuable online learning content and facilitating the constantly evolving learning ecosystem.

Yujie Zhou

Flow-satisfaction-expectancy-purchasing model

This study is an initial attempt to explore the establishment of an economically sustainable online learning ecosystem. Drawing from the Freemium model, researchers developed a two-stage Flow-Satisfaction-Expectancy-Purchasing (FSEP) model (Figure 2). The first stage analyses online learners’ perceptions and experiences with free trial online courses. Meanwhile, the second stage examines learners’ expectations and purchasing intentions regarding paid full online courses.

The FSEP model underscores the significance of learners’ willingness to purchase online courses in fostering an economically sustainable online learning community. Profitability is the key to sustainably offering valuable online learning content and facilitating the dynamic evolution of the learning ecosystem.

To validate and explain the FSEP model, the researchers employed a sequential explanatory mixed-method approach. Initially, the model underwent validation using a large sample size. Subsequently, the researchers conducted semi-structured interviews to provide further insights into how learners’ flow experience with free trial courses influences their intention to purchase paid courses.

Figure 2. The FSEP model
Credit. Author

How to achieve an economically sustainable online learning ecosystem?

The quantitative results demonstrate that online learners’ flow experience and satisfaction with the free course directly affect their expectations for paid courses. This, in turn, increases their intention to purchase (HI, H2, and H3). Meanwhile, three full mediation effects reveal the importance of the psychological paths that were also identified (H4, H5, and H6). The semi-structured interview results further validate the pathways outlined in the FSEP model.

The quantitative data revealed that learners’ satisfaction is a vital mediator between the flow experience and their perceived value of paid online courses. The participants articulated this relationship clearly and comprehensively. This suggests that learners form high-value expectations for paid courses only when satisfied with the process or outcome of free trials.

For the indirect path of “Flow – satisfaction – Value expectancy – Purchase intention”, one participant expressed, “If I immerse myself in a course, I would think the course is good and expect it to help me improve my academic performance. That is why I decided to pay to get more.” This underscores the foundational role of the flow state in influencing learners’ purchasing intentions. It also highlights the causal and conducive relationships among flow, satisfaction, expectancy, and purchasing.

Moreover, another indirect path, “satisfaction – Value expectancy – Purchase intention”, emerged from the interview statements. Participants noted that their satisfaction with free digital content is a basis for purchasing behaviours. One participant said, “The trial courses act as a reference point, helping me foresee the quality of the paid resources. If they satisfy me, I would feel the paid one is more valuable and useful.” This illustrates how evaluating free trial courses can help learners predict the value of paid courses. This ultimately influences their intention to purchase.

Implications for research and practice

Despite the growing willingness of learners to pay for knowledge, many online learning communities still face closure each year. This results in a significant waste of educational resources. This study examines the establishment of an economically sustainable online learning ecosystem. It can potentially balance the interests of learners, platforms, course providers, and other participants within the ecosystem.

Furthermore, the two-stage model developed in the study effectively explains online learners’ inclination to purchase paid courses. The model not only interconnects the essential components of the freemium model, encompassing both free and premium stages, but it also establishes a link between students’ past learning experience and their future intention to purchase courses.

Insights for community managers

In addition, the study also provides valuable insights for online learning community managers. Firstly, practitioners should prioritise improving the quality of free trial courses and providing an immersive learning experience for online learners. This approach can incentivise learners to purchase paid courses, thus generating revenue to build an economically sustainable online learning ecosystem.

Secondly, practitioners should focus on enhancing the utilitarian, intrinsic, hedonic, and social value of paid courses. This can be accomplished by showcasing real-life examples demonstrating how paid courses can improve academic performance or professional skills.

Thirdly, online courses possess commodity and educational attributes, allowing practitioners to employ various marketing strategies to attract learners. However, the revenue generated should primarily be used to encourage course providers to deliver high-quality online courses. This ensures a consistent supply of quality teaching and learning resources for online learners. Consequently, this approach fosters a virtuous cycle from knowledge production to consumption. It also facilitates the economically sustainable development of the online learning community.

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Journal reference

Zhou, Y., Cao, G., & Shen, X. L. (2023). Building an economically sustainable online learning ecosystem with freemium model: A sequential mixed-method approach. Education and Information Technologies, 1-29. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-023-12347-7

Dr Yujie Zhou is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at City University of Hong Kong and a scholar in the field of Educational Psychology & Technology, specialising in digital distraction, online learning, computer-supported teaching and learning, and AI in education. Dr Zhou has published research articles in several reputable journals such as the Internet and Higher Education (IHE), Journal of Business Research (JBR), Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (JETHE), Education and Information Technologies (EAIT), and Interactive Learning Environment (ILE).

Dr Ge Cao is a Lecturer at the Institute of Education, Ningxia University. Her work focuses especially on adolescent-parent conflicts, the influences of parenting on children’s psychological wellbeing, and the impacts of contextual factors on caregiving and child development. She has published several research articles in reputable academic journals, contributing to the field of education and child development.

Professor Xiao-Liang Shen, affiliated with the School of Information Management at Wuhan University, specialises in information behaviour, ethics, and the dark side of IT in the context of emerging technologies. With an H-index of 28 and 4699 citations on Google Scholar, he was recognised as a Highly Cited Chinese Researcher by Elsevier. Prof. Shen has authored over 80 articles in prestigious journals and conferences including JASIST, JAIS, JIT, DSS, I&M, IJIM, ICIS, iConference, etc. He serves as the Principal Investigator or co-PI of a number of competitive grants and holds positions as the Executive Editor of Data and Information Management and Senior Editor of Internet Research.