MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers

column | MOOCs

MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers

By Dhawal Shah (Columnist)     Dec 28, 2015

MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers

Have massive open online courses emerged from the Trough of Disillusionment to the Slopes of Enlightenment? Wherever MOOCs belong on the Gartner Hype Cycle, one thing is clear: there are more courses and students now than ever before.

Student enrollments in MOOCs doubled this year. In fact, more people signed up for MOOCs in 2015 than they did in the first three years of the “modern” MOOC movement (which started in late 2011—when the first Stanford MOOCs took off). According to data collected by Class Central, the total number of students who signed up for at least one course has crossed 35 million—up from an estimated 17 million last year.

In 2014, Coursera claimed more student signups than Udacity, edX and all other MOOC providers combined. This year, Coursera accounted for slightly less than half of all MOOC students. One company to watch is FutureLearn, a UK-based company owned by The Open University, which grew its user base from 800,000 students in 2014 to nearly three million students this year—more than Udacity.

In 2015, 1,800 new courses were announced, taking the total number of courses to 4,200 from over 550 universities.


With a distinct focus on monetization in 2015, many MOOC providers and partner universities offered more courses covering in-demand skills in technology and business fields. The percentage of Computer Science and Programming courses grew more than 10 percent. This growth in technical and business courses has correlated with a decrease in the humanities and social science courses, but overall there is still a healthy balance of technical and non-technical courses.


Not much has changed in course distribution among providers. Coursera, edX and the Canvas remain the top three providers of courses. Kadenze, a MOOC platform optimized for arts education, was the only the MOOC provider to launch in 2015.


The share of English language courses has reduced slightly from 80% in 2014 to 75% in 2015, which can be attributed to a couple reasons. Overseas institutions, sometimes with the backing of local companies governments, are offering more MOOCs in local languages. ( France Université Numérique and MiriadaX are a couple examples.) After English, Spanish and French are the biggest languages in which courses are offered. Courses are currently being offered in 16 different languages, including Basque and Estonian.

Top Searches

Class Central users ran over 250,000 searches using 60,000 search terms. These top 25 search keywords (in order) account for 13% of all searches: python, java, writing, statistics, english, computer science, machine learning, healthcare, data science, marketing, accounting, c, android. big data, finance, excel, psychology, spanish, music, project management, photography, javascript, programming, sql, french.

Top Courses

2,200 courses were offered for the first time in 2015. Based on a Bayesian average of more than 7,000 reviews written by Class Central, here are the top-rated courses. (Look what subject came in first!) we were able to rank the courses.

  1. A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment (Indian School of Business & Coursera)
  2. Introduction to Programming with MATLAB (Vanderbilt University & Coursera)
  3. The Great Poems Series: Unbinding Prometheus (OpenLearning)
  4. Marketing in a Digital World (UIUC & Coursera)
  5. Fractals and Scaling (Santa Fe Institute & Complexity Explorer)
  6. What is a Mind? (University of Cape Town & FutureLearn)
  7. Algorithms for DNA Sequencing (Johns Hopkins University & Coursera)
  8. Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance (Monash University & FutureLearn)
  9. Programming for Everybody: Getting Started with Python (University of Michigan & Coursera)
  10. CS100.1x: Introduction to Big Data with Apache Spark (UC Berkeley & edX)

For more details, read our post on Best Online Courses of 2015.

Top Universities

Which universities created the highest-reviewed courses? Not the ones you would expect—or find in the latest issue of the Best Global Universities Rankings that U.S. News publishes every year. Below are the top-rated universities (which have all published more than five courses).

  1. Santa Fe Institute
  2. Monash University
  3. Case Western Reserve University
  4. San Jose State University
  5. Australian National University
  6. Yale University
  7. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  8. University of Melbourne
  9. University of Queensland
  10. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Top 2015 Trends

MOOCs find business models: One of the big trends last year was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees, Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries. For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of revenue, and both companies have raised big venture rounds to create more. Currently there are more than 100 credentials available from MOOC providers.

EdX, on the other hand is focusing on creating ways for students to earn credit with MOOCs. Earlier this year in April, the nonprofit partnered with Arizona State University to create the Global Freshman Academy. It is also pursuing partnerships with credit-granting institutions that students can earn credits through schools including the American Council on Education, Charter Oak State College and MIT.

Death of free certificates: The pursuit of revenues has meant that many MOOC providers have stopped offering free certificates. The average course of a Coursera certificate is $56; for edX, $53. Coursera is going one step further and is introducing a paywall for graded assignments for some courses.

Rise of self-paced courses: MOOCs started out with a structure parallel to college classroom courses, with a start and end date, and specific deadlines for assignments. One issue with these courses is that students would not know when—or if—the class would be offered again. Currently, 55% of all courses listed on Class Central do not have an upcoming start date.

Recently, MOOC providers have moved towards a self-paced model, meaning that courses are always open to signup and users can complete a course at their own pace. There are now more than 800 self-paced courses (20% of all MOOCs on Class Central), and the number is growing quickly. Coursera also introduced regularly scheduled sessions with soft deadlines. These sessions usually run once a month. If a student is not able to finish the course, they can always move to the next session without losing their place in the course.

Targeting high school: MOOC providers have started targeting high schoolers with the intentions of closing the college readiness gap, helping students to get a taste of different majors through introductory courses, and providing exam preparation (like AP) courses.Two specific MOOC providers are leading the charge: edX with its High School Initiative, and FutureLearn with the Going to University Collection.

2015: Less Experimentation, More Iteration

If the first generation of MOOCs was simply a catalog of free courses, today’s MOOCs are created with more intentionality and, for learners, practical outcomes. The concept behind online courses still remains the same, but the packaging has evolved. That the “Big Three” MOOC providers are now focused on making credentials matter—whether through Nanodegrees, Specializations or course credits—signals a maturation in offering a clearer value proposition. (From the company’s perspective, it also helps that credentials have now become the business model that so many have asked about.)

In 2016, we can expect to see a lot more credentials and credits. But as MOOC providers try to aggressively monetize, early adopters may find that critical components of the learning experience will no longer be free.

Dhawal Shah is the founder and CEO of Class Central

Image Credit: Flickr user cogdogblog, shared under CC BY 2.0 license

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