Just a few years ago, the conversation about massive open online courses (MOOCs) was everywhere in higher education and covered in the popular press. Predictions abounded that MOOCs would replace traditional college courses. In November 2012, The New York Times trumpeted this trend, dubbing 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” Disruptive innovations guru Clayton Christensen predicted in early 2013 that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse,” and that because of online education, “even five years from now [colleges and universities] are going to be in real trouble.” Christensen repeated the prediction later that year, saying that “a host of struggling colleges and universities … will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.”
But the attention paid to MOOCs waned soon after that statement. According to Google Trends, searches for “Massive open online course” and “MOOC” peaked in January 2014 and have been relatively flat ever since. That same month, Forbes contributor John Ebersole deliberately left MOOCs out of a list of top issues in education for 2014, saying, “Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of ‘enough already’ will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.” Critics questioned MOOCs’ business model, low rate of completion, and weak methods of assessing and verifying student progress, among other things.
So, are MOOCs history, or is something else going on? In fact, they’ve been continuing to evolve and to reshape education, just more quietly than before. To see how, let’s look at a few developments made by the “Big Three” U.S. MOOC providers—Coursera, edX, and Udacity—as well as trends in the world of MOOCs as a whole.
Founded by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun as an outgrowth of his teaching, Udacity set out to reinvent higher education. In the past 3 years, it has undergone the most radical pivot of the Big Three providers. After a failed experiment with San Jose State University, it began to focus on corporate partnerships and corporate funding. The idea is, if you can’t charge students for the privilege of taking a MOOC, you can offer MOOCs that teach skills that are in short supply and charge employers for teaching their current employees and identifying new job candidates. As a result, Udacity has the narrowest curriculum of the Big Three. A look at its catalog shows a tight focus on software and related computer technology skills. Corporate sponsors such as Amazon, AT&T, and Google are featured prominently. There’s also a recruiting marketplace where employers and MOOC students can come together. Udacity has also found ways of charging students for its labor development services. To cover the student revenue side, it has trademarked Nanodegree programs that charge tuition and come with various career placement options.
Udacity has also evolved its course delivery by introducing weekly in-person sessions, called UConnect, that are reminiscent of that retro pedagogical device, the weekly in-person class. UConnect sessions are currently being piloted in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Nor has Udacity entirely given up on academic partnerships—it continues to host a for-credit computer science master’s degree program offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology. And although it has narrowed its subject focus, Udacity has broadened its geographic range and gone global by lining up corporate partners in emerging economies. It announced a major expansion into India in 2015 and a major expansion into China in April 2016, with courses in Chinese, thanks to several corporate partners.
Co-founded by scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, the edX consortium has stayed much closer to its original strategy than Udacity has. It’s still a nonprofit organization driven by its worldwide institutional academic partners, now numbered in the dozens. There’s just a sprinkling of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Amnesty International; government-sponsored initiatives, such as Doroob from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor and MéxicoX from Mexico’s Ministry of Education; and corporations, most prominently, Microsoft.
edX has stayed close to its roots in other ways too. It aims to duplicate the range of disciplines in higher education, not just focus on in-demand, high-tech training. Its courses are diverse in subject matter and language of instruction: There are courses in history, law, music, and philosophy, as well as the expected computer science and mathematics. (However, computer science, with 214 courses as of this writing, is still the leading subject.)
Financially, edX has continued the free-to-take, pay-to-certify model, by which students pay only if they opt to obtain a formal certificate of completion. For example, its paid XSeries certificates confirm completion of a series of courses on a given subject. As a nonprofit, edX focuses less on revenue generation than the other two providers do. Instead, its partners may be viewing edX as something of a loss leader—an initiative that promotes the institution’s brand, develops its expertise in online education, and perhaps attracts diverse, high-quality applicants to its traditional degree programs. For example, Arizona State University and edX have teamed up on Global Freshman Academy, which debuted in 2015. It gives students the opportunity to enroll in online courses equivalent to those in a first-semester college program and to receive course credits upon completion as long as they have a grade of C or better and can pay $200 per credit hour. While initial results were disappointing, with just 323 of 34,086 learners qualifying for credit, the partnership is expected to continue.
Coursera is something of a hybrid of edX and Udacity. Founded by Stanford University professors and constituted as a for-profit corporation similar to Udacity, it nevertheless shares the broad curriculum and focus on higher education of edX. Despite its for-profit status, it has partnerships with more than 140 institutions of higher education—generally nonprofits—in 28 countries on six continents. These partners offer courses on a wide array of subjects, including business (the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has been a leader among B-schools) and music (Boston’s Berklee College of Music, for example). A section of its website invites corporate training inquiries, but there are no details, nor a list of current company training engagements.
Coursera’s website reveals a certain sense of ambivalence about its course delivery and business model. The About page highlights blended learning: “Many of our partner institutions are using our online platform to provide their on-campus students with an improved learning experience. This blended model of learning has shown in studies to increase student engagement, attendance and performance.” Still, its courses remain open to all for online-only participation, and in keeping with its for-profit status and need for revenue, in January 2016, it introduced a pre-payment requirement in some courses for students who wish to submit assignments for grading and receive a course certificate upon completion.
With their diverse business models, levels of global expansion, increasing emphasis on certification and academic credit, and partnerships with both the corporate sector and nonprofit higher education organizations, the Big Three have been addressing some of the criticisms leveled at them in the past. They’re also taking on the criticism of their reliance on machine-graded exercises such as multiple choice tests. Coursera asserts the effectiveness of its peer-to-peer grading system, whereby each student is supposed to receive feedback from 10 other students. Meanwhile, edX has experimented with artificial intelligence by using a sample of human-graded essays to train a computer-based system to perform grading. (Sounds like a perfect job for IBM Watson!)
So, a few years after “The Year of the MOOC” and Christensen’s prediction of doom, traditional higher education is still with us—but so are the MOOCs. Now that higher education is open to partnering with MOOCs, the next several years promise to be even more interesting than the previous ones.