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11 March 2013

Analysis: The current state of MOOCs

MOOCs continue to dominate higher education headlines, but what is the current state of play, and what does the future hold for online course providers?

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

The rise of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has not been a quiet one, and much indicates that the MOOC providers that stole higher education headlines throughout 2012 will continue to be a disruptive force in the sector throughout 2013 and beyond.

In the past two weeks, Stanford-backed Coursera and MIT and Harvard’s edX both announced a flurry of new partner institutions. Coursera, the largest of the main three MOOC platforms with over 2.7m students, announced 29 new universities, bringing its total partner count to 62. At the same time, edX added a further six partners, including its first institutions outside of the US, and now has a total of 12.

Meanwhile, in news welcomed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, MOOC provider Futurelearn added to its all British line-up with seven new partners including the British Council and the British Library, joining a number of prestigious UK institutions including Cardiff, Birmingham, Warwick, Exeter, and Southampton. The platform, led by distance educator The Open University, is due to start offering courses in the second half of this year.

Futurelearn also revealed that the platform will be for-profit, opening the door to questions posed at its American rivals regarding business models. While the rate at which the main three US MOOC platforms have grown is staggering, the return on investment for providing free-to-access higher education is, as yet, unlikely to spark any champagne-popping parties with their venture capital partners.

While edX remains not-for-profit, both Coursera and the third major MOOC platform Udacity have received $22m in venture backing over the past year. On paper, Udacity makes for enticing investment offer.  It is the first of the three major platforms and founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun; the man behind Google X, the research unit which developed the internet giant’s self-driving car and upcoming Glass product. Udacity has grown its globally-reaching userbase to over 400,000 students in a year, and plans to continue growth with computer science-focussed courses backed by names like Google, Microsoft, and Nvidia.

Yet, as with Coursera, a robust monetisation strategy is yet to emerge. So far, many have been put forward but none have stuck. One of the most obvious is to charge for accreditation at the end of the course; Coursera has already laid out plans to charge between $30 and $100 for a certificate. However, invigilation issues remain a significant hurdle for MOOCs to jump. Many academics have already underlined the importance of MOOC platforms ensuring they are testing the student, and not the student’s skills with Google search, to gain credibility.

To this end, Coursera have partnered with online invigilation firm ProtorU and have been granted permission to award credit for a small number of courses by the American Council on Education. It’s small but fast steps in the right direction. However, compounding the issue are the high dropout rates of courses, with courses averaging around 90-95%. Therefore, the numbers being bantered about in the press dwarf the comparatively small number of potential customers who actually reach the end of a course.

The providers are also looking at other means of generating an income, such as licensing out their content and also offering headhunting services where top MOOC performers can opt-in to having their details passed on to big name tech firms. There is also the angle that MOOCs could be seen as more of a marketing tool than a money-spinner, positioning the institutions who offer the courses on a global platform with the aim of turning MOOC users into full-time degree students. Thrun certainly sees this as the future, and has made the somewhat ambitious prediction that in 2050, there will only be 10 universities left in the world.

To Thrun and his peers, the key to success in this emerging edtech sector is to secure the userbase whilst simultaneously developing the pedagogy of the classes on offer; a topic of heavy debate in MOOC circles. Much of the focus remains on building the userbase and getting the teaching right before turning attention to the issue of monetisation.

Aside from the business model (or lack thereof), one of the other biggest criticisms of MOOCs is that they offer nothing new. Open Educational Resources (OERs) have been available for well over a decade, such as Wikipedia and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. As for lectures, The Khan Academy, backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has given away over 245m free online lectures in a range of subjects since 2006, and The Open University was providing free lectures on British television way back in the 1970s.

Despite this assertion, MOOCs have already proven to be one of the fastest evolving edtech trends seen in decades. It would be foolhardy to expect a sector with so many innovative minds working to create engaging pedagogy to remain static with ‘talking heads’ lectures for long. Increased interactivity, a fuller utilisation of the possibilities offered through computers, and gamification are all likely to play a part as MOOCs develop.

As for those in higher education who expect them to just disappear have obviously not being attention to recent history. Ask anyone in retail, telecommunication, the music industry, travel, film, or even journalism what happens if you ignore the disruptive power of the internet once it breaks into a sector and the response will either be likely be along the lines of “evolve or die”, or merely a sarcastic laugh.

Currently, MOOCs represent a “brave new world” for edtech and the higher education sector as a whole. Because of how rapidly MOOCs are shifting into uncharted territory, it would be mere futurology to predict with any certainty just how much of an impact they will have over the coming years; except to say that an impact is certain.

As Daphine Koller, chief executive at Coursera, put it: “A year ago, I could not have imagined that we would be where we are now. Who knows where we’ll be in five more years?”


*DISCLAIMER* While every effort has been made to ensure the above article remains impartial, it should be noted that the author also works as a press officer at The Open University and has worked on publicity for Futurelearn.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from www.globaluniversityventuring.com or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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