The New York Times reports this morning that Harvard is attempting to recruit alumni to serve as unpaid volunteers in its first big MOOC offering.

The university is seeking alums who took the course, “The Ancient Greek Hero,” as undergrads to serve as  “mentors and discussion group managers” — what used to, back in the olden days when people got paid for classroom labor, be called Teaching Assistants.

More than 27,000 people have enrolled in the course’s MOOC version this semester, and Harvard is apparently nervous. Online discussions in MOOCs “tend to run off the rails,” one Harvard staffer told the Times. Harvard has already recruited ten alums who have TA’ed the course in the past to do the same again on a volunteer basis, and is now beating the bushes for more unpaid help.

The Times piece stresses the fact that the Greek Hero MOOC is a free course, but doesn’t address the larger long-term agenda for the MOOC project. If MOOCs were all about providing people with free opportunities to take online versions of college classes that wouldn’t grant them college credit there wouldn’t be much point to the whole thing — if folks want to sit in front of a computer and watch someone talk, YouTube already exists.

No, the place where MOOCs will make their mark on education, and earn their keep, is in charging students to take them for college credit. Coursera, one of the leading MOOC outfits, began rolling out such a plan this year, announcing a fee-based “Signature Track” service in January. A month later the American Council on Education announced that Signature Track would be a requirement for taking Coursera courses for credit.

Coursera is a for-profit company, while edX, the engine behind the new Harvard course, is structured as a non-profit. But profit or non-, projects like these need revenue streams.

As edX president Anant Agarwal put it earlier this month, “we have very lofty goals, but at the heart of it, we’re building a business. We don’t have to turn in huge profits … but we have to be self-sustaining.”

In addition to executive education, the Harvard Crimson reported, edX is seeking revenue in charging for credit certification, as well as — wait for it — “professor contact.”

Hello, alumni!