MOOCs Are No Longer Massive. And They Serve Different Audiences Than...

Digital Learning

MOOCs Are No Longer Massive. And They Serve Different Audiences Than First Imagined.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Aug 21, 2018

MOOCs Are No Longer Massive. And They Serve Different Audiences Than First Imagined.

MOOCs have gone from a buzzword to a punchline, especially among professors who were skeptical of these “massive open online courses” in the first place. But what is their legacy on campuses?

MOOCs started in around 2011 when a few Stanford professors put their courses online and made them available to anyone who wanted to take them. The crowds who showed up were, well, massive. We’re talking 160,000 people signing up to study advanced tech topics like data science.

The New York Times later declared 2012 as the ‘year of the MOOC,’ and columnists said the virtual courses would bring a revolution. But in the rush of public interest that followed, skeptics wondered whether online courses could help fix the cost crisis of higher education. Was this the answer to one of the nation’s toughest problems?

The answer, it turns out, is, no. Actually these days you don’t hear much about MOOCs at all. In the national press there’s almost a MOOC amnesia. It’s like it never happened.

But these courses are still around, and they’ve quietly evolved. Dhawal Shah, founder and CEO of Class Central, has been tracking MOOCs closely and steadily ever since he was a student in one of those first Stanford open courses.

Shah is our podcast guest this week, and he argues that MOOCs are having an impact, but mainly for people who are enrolling in MOOC-based degrees, where they can get a credential that can help them in their careers without having to go back to a campus. Of course, that’s a very different outcome than the free education for the underserved that was originally promised.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: MOOCs were once headline news around the world and now you hardly hear about them. How would you describe the state of MOOCs and where are things going?

Shah: Yeah, they might have fallen off the big newspapers and the public eye. But they've figured out a monetization model. They might not be profitable but they're making a lot of money. Udacity itself announced that they made 30 million dollars last year. So I think they're grinding it out there. More people are using them than at any point in time before. They're making money and now they are looking forward going into the online degree market and the corporate learning training market.

So that’s where the energy is now, in so-called MOOC degrees?

Yeah, so one of the biggest challenge for an online degree is acquiring users. Finding the students who would want to even pay for their degree. And that's what MOOCS have. They have tons of users. They have a competitive advantage over traditional players. Because they have the students, all they needed was to build a product. And it took a while. I think there are 22 new online MOOC-based degrees that have been announced so far.

Does that surprise you at all? In the early days, the same founders of these MOOC providers, like edX and Coursera, were saying that these were going to be for the masses and they're going to free and reach people who don’t need to pay anything. And what you're describing is low cost but these are degree programs. It's sounding more traditional in some ways.

It is but I personally am more excited about it. Because a lot of these degrees, not all, they release the content for free. So in that sense, the quality of free content is going up because now they are going to create these courses for degrees, so it's just not one course for people who are online and one course for people in a university, it's the same course.

What motivates colleges to stick with this? Is it marketing for their other programs? Is it for philanthropic reasons? Or is it to change university teaching?

I think it’s all of them, and marketing is definitely a big part of it. I think it's still new, so colleges think that if they get in now they might establish the degree and maybe capture the market early.

I think it's a bigger advantage for smaller universities than the bigger because they get to sort of undercut the big players. For many colleges, they might be locally well-known but not globally. They get a chance to reach more users plus it's good money if it works out.

What about the students? Who are the people who end up taking these MOOCs?

It's extremely diverse, the ones who end up paying for them, usually it's people like me who are out of the education system and looking for a promotion or a new job.

There's an entire group of people where just one dollar is too much—they only want free. But, there's another group of people where if they are charged $900 or $1,200 bucks, it’s not a big difference (and they’ll pay either). And then if you know the outcome could be getting 5 percent or 10 percent increase in salary over a lifetime, [you realize] you recoup that money very quickly.

So are the people getting the most out of MOOCs and these new online degrees the same students who already know how to do well in college, and may already have degrees from selective colleges?

People can sign up and look at the videos, [but it can be hard to learn with those on your own]. In the earliest days of MOOCs, which had large communities, [it was easier for students]. The community provided the support and the encouragement. Now, MOOCs are no longer massive. The community engagement is not there, so that makes it more difficult [for many students].

But community isn't really a feature that people sign up for. The reason people pay is the credential. So unfortunately community has fallen down the priority list of the designer of these products. Some, like Udacity, do have a smaller community for paid users. They have a Slack community, for instance, and they have [resources like] mentor support and can see how they're doing it. Generally, though, that’s just for paying students, not for the free students.

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