Much Ado About MOOCs: Where Are We in the Evolution of Online Courses?

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Much Ado About MOOCs: Where Are We in the Evolution of Online Courses?

By Sydney Johnson     Feb 26, 2019

Much Ado About MOOCs: Where Are We in the Evolution of Online Courses?

A lot has changed since 2012 or, the year the New York Times dubbed the "Year of the MOOC." The premise back then was that classes would make high-quality online education accessible for all—and for free. Today, many MOOC providers now charge a fee. They’ve rolled out bundles of courses called ‘Specializations’ or ‘Nanodegrees.’ And popular providers like Coursera and edX are increasingly partnering with colleges and universities to offer MOOC-based degrees online.

So, seven years after the “Year of the MOOC,” we’re wondering: Where are these courses and companies today? And how are universities responding?

EdSurge recently hosted a meetup where we invited a group of experts to weigh in on those questions, and they offered some fascinating insights. The speakers included Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central, Amy Ahearn, associate director at Acumen+, Kapeesh Saraf, head of growth and consumer products at Coursera, and Kristin Palmer, director of online learning at University of Virginia.

This week, we’re bringing the event to you—via the podcast of course. Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Dhawal, can you give us a brief recap on what the MOOC landscape looked like in 2018?

Shah: Last year, the number of learners who had taken at least one MOOC crossed 100 million, but the number of learners added was just 20 million, which was less than 23 million for the last two years. So the rate at which new users are coming into the MOOC space is decreasing.

The number of courses has been growing steadily at the same rate now. We have more than 11,000 courses from 900 universities. As for the MOOC providers, Coursera is the biggest one—with the most revenue and the most number of users, and also the most number of employees. Udacity ended 2017 with 500 employees, but they had layoffs, and ended 2018 with 330 employees.


This week's podcast sponsor is AWS Educate: With a mission to provide students and educators with tools needed to accelerate cloud learning, AWS Educate will soon announce its newest offering for educators. Take a look at AWS Educate's evolution and hear about what is next.


This is how the micro-credential landscape looks like: EdX and Coursera both have multiple micro-credentials, each with their own branding. Overall, 630 micro-credentials existed at the end of 2018, but most of the new credentials came from just two credentials, Coursera specialization, and edX professional certificate.

But the big change in 2018 was MOOC-based degrees. We ended 2017, with seven universities announcing 15 degrees, and in 2018 30 more universities joined in, and launched more than 45 degrees. I think we'll see more of this in this 2019 too.

Kapeesh, why is Coursera pursuing this shift towards MOOC based degrees, and monetizing some of these programs, from a business and revenue perspective?

Saraf: We've been pursuing MOOC-based degrees and different types of micro-credentials for the last couple of years, and we're doing this for two main reasons. The first one is the advent of AI and digital transformation. And so, a lot of people are gonna be needing to learn new skills. We see this really big need out there for people to learn new skills, and earn credentials, which they can show to employers vouching for those skills.

And then the second trend is this demographic shift. If you look at a country like India, over the next 10 to 20 years, there will be more than 300 million people that will enter the workforce. And there's no real infrastructure available to train that many people, and there's no real assurance, a way for all these people to get the skills that they'll need in this new world. When you look at these two trends, we think there's a huge opportunity and a gap for people to be trained and get credentials, and then connect it to employers.

At Coursera, we don't really see ourselves as a MOOC provider, we look at ourselves as a three-sided platform that's connecting learners, educators and employers. And so, we're in this unique position to help universities and partners such as University of Virginia create credentials and programs that they can use to satisfy the needs of learners, based on these two trends. And so that's why we've been innovating quite a bit in MOOC-based credentials and MOOC-based degrees because that's where we see the big needle with the next few years.

Kristin, you work at UVa, which is one of the universities that partners with Coursera. What do you think about the direction that Coursera and other providers like edX are going in with more and more MOOC based degrees?

Palmer: This is a tricky one. We ended up signing up with Coursera, and we have three specializations and 43 courses.

I want to quickly touch on your earlier question about monetization because I think there is a tension in higher education about the fact that we're actually a business. And especially as a public university, with a land grant to help the Commonwealth and the citizens of the Commonwealth and to try to fill jobs and to educate the citizens. But, at the end of the day, there's a sustainability issue. And for all the people that are thinking about startups in the audience, there needs to be a business plan.

We still do free content. But as a university partner, from the beginning, we're a 200-year-old institution. And it's very difficult for us to understand how our value proposition as a partner, and a content provider on Coursera, like what our roles and responsibilities are, compared to Coursera as they continue to move in a degree direction? I think, it would be valuable for our university, and many other university partners, of just being clearer, and more transparent around, “This is how we're gonna work together,” because there are a whole countries, and domains, and jobs, that are opening that we're not agile enough as a university to serve, that we can serve in partnership with a vendor like Coursera. But maybe we're not so great at that communication yet.

Where does the progression towards MOOC-based degrees leave micro-credentials? Are these going to be a thing of the past?

Shah: Micro-credentials are generally a grouping of courses, and I think packaging [online courses] as micro-credentials increases the chances of learners [completing]. And I think for that reason alone, they will linger along for a while. But I'm not sure if they're doing the job of being a job-ready credential. And the big reason for this is, there's too much confusion in the market, and everybody's trying to own the next big credential.

There's a general understanding of what traditional degrees mean, and I think the understanding what micro-credentials mean is not clear. I think even providers are confused because they have so much variation within their own micro-credentials, so it makes it harder for a student or an employer to convey that information.

Amy, you wrote a piece about completion rates not too long ago. Can you tell us general themes around MOOC completion rates, and other thoughts that you have about this?

Ahearn: I design online courses every day, and I've been doing so for about five years. And probably the most frequently asked question I get is, “What is the completion rate for your online courses?” And to be perfectly transparent, for our MOOCs, it averages around 5 to 10 percent, which is the industry benchmark, if you look as a whole. And people say, “Oh my gosh, you have 2,000 to 17,000 people signing up for these, and you're only getting 10 percent to complete. Isn't that a failure?” And in some ways, I think it's always a great aspiration as an instructional designer to keep thinking about ways that you can help people persist in the learning experience, but I also think we're setting an incredibly high bar for what is often free content on the internet.

And if you compared it to other types of digital content, whether that's watching a video, or reading a medium post, or doing anything online, you often see that if you were to do the equivalent of a MOOC experience, which is often signing up for a 12-week experience, doing quite difficult things, whether it's some exercise, some new learning experience, I actually think it's amazing sometimes to see who ends up at the other side of that funnel.

Just to give you a sense, our most popular course is a human centered design course that we run with IDEO.org, and we have deliberately kept it quite hard. We require people to form a team, we require them to go out and talk to real people, to interview them about their needs. They have to submit pictures back on the platform. They have to prototype something, and test it in the real world. They have to upload the assignment. What we found is that if you get those 5 to 10 percent of people who finish it, they're really amazing individuals. And that is the equivalent of the selection rate at some of the most competitive universities.

How have Coursera's views on completion rates have evolved over the years?

Saraf: I spent two out of the four and a half years of my time at Coursera being the guy who was focused on and responsible for our completion rates, so I have some experience in this matter. I think our views have evolved quite a bit, just as we've learned about online learning and what MOOCs are and what they aren't.

It's true that completion rates are really low, but it's also because there's just a lot of people actually just trying out courses, and when you have 100,000 people enrolled in a class, they're exploring, and not all of them intend to learn. What we see is, if people who have skin in the game have a much higher completion rate, and if you focus on those, as an example, people that are paying to earn a certificate, or enrolling to earn a certificate, you see that completion rates shoot up to north of 50 or 60 percent.

And as you go up that commitment curve, you see much higher completion rates. So, we focus a lot more now, on people that have some commitment or skin in the game, as opposed to everyone that's just trying. We still wanted to make the platform more engaging, so that even the very casual person who's just checking it out still gets engaged in the course, and ends up completing, but that's not the focus.

I'd love to open it up to questions from the audience. It looks like we have one right here.

Audience member: My name is Nicole, I'm with the State Department. What does the future hold for our professors, our content creators, the experts the subject matter experts? Is it a plight? Is it all opportunity? Are they the taxi drivers in this ride sharing economy? What does the future hold for them?

Palmer: I suspect everybody that's interested in education has had that one teacher, or that one moment, in that one place, where your world was opened up, or opportunities were put in front of you, or challenges were created. And that is still something we need in spades. We need to figure out how do we scale that, so that there are more people that can provide that type of experience to more people.

But I'm also highly controversial at UVa because I feel like executive education is done. We have set our faculty up to be consultants. We encourage them to consult, and stay savvy in the marketplace. And why Coursera is not hitting every executive education client, and saying, “Hey, Professor Alex come and be a consultant and do a high-touch thing in San Francisco for weekend.” There's a little bit of a gig economy, I think, that will come up in that space, and it will not be every faculty member. It will be those that are savvy in that space, and have good relationships.

Ahearn: I think we have some real strategic questions around where we start to put paywalls, and I see that not a lot of people end up not wanting to pay for the content, or the curriculum. You can get that for free. It's accessible in many different places. I spend a lot of time writing courses, and developing that, so that's painful for me to say, but I think it's true. I think what we are seeing people willing to pay for, though, is the instruction, the personal feedback, the structure, the rigor—essentially, the teaching.

Audience member: I run a private school, and we're accredited. If my pass rate was 5 percent, I would be shut down. Do you ever run into issues like this?

Palmer: I do think as far as there's a business plan, and there needs to be sustainability, and there needs to be alumni giving money for endowments. There will be people being paid to think, and innovate, and bump ideas off of each other. It's just, a lot of those ideas are now gonna be between people in different parts of the world. They're not necessarily going to be in one building at the University of Virginia. It's why we still have Latin classes, and we have other things that are not high money making careers, but we still offer them as content. And that will continue to be the case.

As far as accreditation, I don't think there's any degree programs anywhere online that has 5 percent completion rates. That would get yanked. Ours are certainly closer to 100 percent, and this is where that skin in the game goes. But 5 percent, that’s just [referring to the completion rates] for a free MOOC, or I'm gonna pay $49 and maybe post it to LinkedIn if I finish it.

A lot has changed since 2012 or, the year the New York Times dubbed the "Year of the MOOC." The premise back then was that classes would make high-quality online education accessible for all—and for free. Today, many MOOC providers now charge a fee. They’ve rolled out bundles of courses called ‘Specializations’ or ‘Nanodegrees.’ And popular providers like Coursera and edX are increasingly partnering with colleges and universities to offer MOOC-based degrees online.

So, seven years after the “Year of the MOOC,” we’re wondering: Where are these courses and companies today? And how are universities responding?

EdSurge recently hosted a meetup where we invited a group of experts to weigh in on those questions, and they offered some fascinating insights. The speakers included Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central, Amy Ahearn, associate director at Acumen+, Kapeesh Saraf, head of growth and consumer products at Coursera, and Kristin Palmer, director of online learning at University of Virginia.

This week, we’re bringing the event to you—via the podcast of course. Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Dhawal, can you give us a brief recap on what the MOOC landscape looked like in 2018?

Shah: Last year, the number of learners who had taken at least one MOOC crossed 100 million, but the number of learners added was just 20 million, which was less than 23 million for the last two years. So the rate at which new users are coming into the MOOC space is decreasing.

The number of courses has been growing steadily at the same rate now. We have more than 11,000 courses from 900 universities. As for the MOOC providers, Coursera is the biggest one—with the most revenue and the most number of users, and also the most number of employees. Udacity ended 2017 with 500 employees, but they had layoffs, and ended 2018 with 330 employees.


This week's podcast sponsor is AWS Educate: With a mission to provide students and educators with tools needed to accelerate cloud learning, AWS Educate will soon announce its newest offering for educators. Take a look at AWS Educate's evolution and hear about what is next.


This is how the micro-credential landscape looks like: EdX and Coursera both have multiple micro-credentials, each with their own branding. Overall, 630 micro-credentials existed at the end of 2018, but most of the new credentials came from just two credentials, Coursera specialization, and edX professional certificate.

But the big change in 2018 was MOOC-based degrees. We ended 2017, with seven universities announcing 15 degrees, and in 2018 30 more universities joined in, and launched more than 45 degrees. I think we'll see more of this in this 2019 too.

Kapeesh, why is Coursera pursuing this shift towards MOOC based degrees, and monetizing some of these programs, from a business and revenue perspective?

Saraf: We've been pursuing MOOC-based degrees and different types of micro-credentials for the last couple of years, and we're doing this for two main reasons. The first one is the advent of AI and digital transformation. And so, a lot of people are gonna be needing to learn new skills. We see this really big need out there for people to learn new skills, and earn credentials, which they can show to employers vouching for those skills.

And then the second trend is this demographic shift. If you look at a country like India, over the next 10 to 20 years, there will be more than 300 million people that will enter the workforce. And there's no real infrastructure available to train that many people, and there's no real assurance, a way for all these people to get the skills that they'll need in this new world. When you look at these two trends, we think there's a huge opportunity and a gap for people to be trained and get credentials, and then connect it to employers.

At Coursera, we don't really see ourselves as a MOOC provider, we look at ourselves as a three-sided platform that's connecting learners, educators and employers. And so, we're in this unique position to help universities and partners such as University of Virginia create credentials and programs that they can use to satisfy the needs of learners, based on these two trends. And so that's why we've been innovating quite a bit in MOOC-based credentials and MOOC-based degrees because that's where we see the big needle with the next few years.

Kristin, you work at UVa, which is one of the universities that partners with Coursera. What do you think about the direction that Coursera and other providers like edX are going in with more and more MOOC based degrees?

Palmer: This is a tricky one. We ended up signing up with Coursera, and we have three specializations and 43 courses.

I want to quickly touch on your earlier question about monetization because I think there is a tension in higher education about the fact that we're actually a business. And especially as a public university, with a land grant to help the Commonwealth and the citizens of the Commonwealth and to try to fill jobs and to educate the citizens. But, at the end of the day, there's a sustainability issue. And for all the people that are thinking about startups in the audience, there needs to be a business plan.

We still do free content. But as a university partner, from the beginning, we're a 200-year-old institution. And it's very difficult for us to understand how our value proposition as a partner, and a content provider on Coursera, like what our roles and responsibilities are, compared to Coursera as they continue to move in a degree direction? I think, it would be valuable for our university, and many other university partners, of just being clearer, and more transparent around, “This is how we're gonna work together,” because there are a whole countries, and domains, and jobs, that are opening that we're not agile enough as a university to serve, that we can serve in partnership with a vendor like Coursera. But maybe we're not so great at that communication yet.

Where does the progression towards MOOC-based degrees leave micro-credentials? Are these going to be a thing of the past?

Shah: Micro-credentials are generally a grouping of courses, and I think packaging [online courses] as micro-credentials increases the chances of learners [completing]. And I think for that reason alone, they will linger along for a while. But I'm not sure if they're doing the job of being a job-ready credential. And the big reason for this is, there's too much confusion in the market, and everybody's trying to own the next big credential.

There's a general understanding of what traditional degrees mean, and I think the understanding what micro-credentials mean is not clear. I think even providers are confused because they have so much variation within their own micro-credentials, so it makes it harder for a student or an employer to convey that information.

Amy, you wrote a piece about completion rates not too long ago. Can you tell us general themes around MOOC completion rates, and other thoughts that you have about this?

Ahearn: I design online courses every day, and I've been doing so for about five years. And probably the most frequently asked question I get is, “What is the completion rate for your online courses?” And to be perfectly transparent, for our MOOCs, it averages around 5 to 10 percent, which is the industry benchmark, if you look as a whole. And people say, “Oh my gosh, you have 2,000 to 17,000 people signing up for these, and you're only getting 10 percent to complete. Isn't that a failure?” And in some ways, I think it's always a great aspiration as an instructional designer to keep thinking about ways that you can help people persist in the learning experience, but I also think we're setting an incredibly high bar for what is often free content on the internet.

And if you compared it to other types of digital content, whether that's watching a video, or reading a medium post, or doing anything online, you often see that if you were to do the equivalent of a MOOC experience, which is often signing up for a 12-week experience, doing quite difficult things, whether it's some exercise, some new learning experience, I actually think it's amazing sometimes to see who ends up at the other side of that funnel.

Just to give you a sense, our most popular course is a human centered design course that we run with IDEO.org, and we have deliberately kept it quite hard. We require people to form a team, we require them to go out and talk to real people, to interview them about their needs. They have to submit pictures back on the platform. They have to prototype something, and test it in the real world. They have to upload the assignment. What we found is that if you get those 5 to 10 percent of people who finish it, they're really amazing individuals. And that is the equivalent of the selection rate at some of the most competitive universities.

How have Coursera's views on completion rates have evolved over the years?

Saraf: I spent two out of the four and a half years of my time at Coursera being the guy who was focused on and responsible for our completion rates, so I have some experience in this matter. I think our views have evolved quite a bit, just as we've learned about online learning and what MOOCs are and what they aren't.

It's true that completion rates are really low, but it's also because there's just a lot of people actually just trying out courses, and when you have 100,000 people enrolled in a class, they're exploring, and not all of them intend to learn. What we see is, if people who have skin in the game have a much higher completion rate, and if you focus on those, as an example, people that are paying to earn a certificate, or enrolling to earn a certificate, you see that completion rates shoot up to north of 50 or 60 percent.

And as you go up that commitment curve, you see much higher completion rates. So, we focus a lot more now, on people that have some commitment or skin in the game, as opposed to everyone that's just trying. We still wanted to make the platform more engaging, so that even the very casual person who's just checking it out still gets engaged in the course, and ends up completing, but that's not the focus.

I'd love to open it up to questions from the audience. It looks like we have one right here.

Audience member: My name is Nicole, I'm with the State Department. What does the future hold for our professors, our content creators, the experts the subject matter experts? Is it a plight? Is it all opportunity? Are they the taxi drivers in this ride sharing economy? What does the future hold for them?

Palmer: I suspect everybody that's interested in education has had that one teacher, or that one moment, in that one place, where your world was opened up, or opportunities were put in front of you, or challenges were created. And that is still something we need in spades. We need to figure out how do we scale that, so that there are more people that can provide that type of experience to more people.

But I'm also highly controversial at UVa because I feel like executive education is done. We have set our faculty up to be consultants. We encourage them to consult, and stay savvy in the marketplace. And why Coursera is not hitting every executive education client, and saying, “Hey, Professor Alex come and be a consultant and do a high-touch thing in San Francisco for weekend.” There's a little bit of a gig economy, I think, that will come up in that space, and it will not be every faculty member. It will be those that are savvy in that space, and have good relationships.

Ahearn: I think we have some real strategic questions around where we start to put paywalls, and I see that not a lot of people end up not wanting to pay for the content, or the curriculum. You can get that for free. It's accessible in many different places. I spend a lot of time writing courses, and developing that, so that's painful for me to say, but I think it's true. I think what we are seeing people willing to pay for, though, is the instruction, the personal feedback, the structure, the rigor—essentially, the teaching.

Audience member: I run a private school, and we're accredited. If my pass rate was 5 percent, I would be shut down. Do you ever run into issues like this?

Palmer: I do think as far as there's a business plan, and there needs to be sustainability, and there needs to be alumni giving money for endowments. There will be people being paid to think, and innovate, and bump ideas off of each other. It's just, a lot of those ideas are now gonna be between people in different parts of the world. They're not necessarily going to be in one building at the University of Virginia. It's why we still have Latin classes, and we have other things that are not high money making careers, but we still offer them as content. And that will continue to be the case.

As far as accreditation, I don't think there's any degree programs anywhere online that has 5 percent completion rates. That would get yanked. Ours are certainly closer to 100 percent, and this is where that skin in the game goes. But 5 percent, that’s just [referring to the completion rates] for a free MOOC, or I'm gonna pay $49 and maybe post it to LinkedIn if I finish it.

  

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