State of the MOOC 2016: A Year of Massive Landscape Change For Massive Open Online Courses

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Going on eight years since MOOCs first entered the scene, massive open online courses have gone from cameras at the back of U.S. college classrooms to several full-fledged ecosystems in the global industry of online learning. Touted initially by creators for growing opportunities in the verticals of Distance Education, Lifelong Learning, Continuing Education, and making a college education both free and accessible, MOOCs have also been criticized heavily by established academics for sanctioning edutainment, teaching methods that are unprofessional, as well as the corporatization of higher education.

Despite this hefty resistance from public educators, MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity, edX, and FutureLearn keep popping out courses left and right, although increasingly, with fees. Hosted by such illustrious institutions as Stanford, MIT, Yale, Harvard, and world-renowned international universities like Heidelberg, the Indian Institute of Technology, the Sorbonne and at least 563 other universities, the number of massive open online courses has exploded in recent years. Dhawal Shah, founder and CEO of MOOC discovery database, Class Central, has catalogued this staggering growth since 2011. Using his database in conjunction with rankings from U.S. News and World Report, we’ve found that the number of MOOCs has grown exponentially over the past several years. We also found that most MOOCs tend to group around the topmost schools on U.S. News’ “National University Rankings” list, meaning there is an unequal distribution of MOOCs among America’s colleges and universities, with schools below the Top 50 mark showing an average of 18 fewer MOOCs per university than those within the top 50. Undoubtedly, much of this inequity can be explained by the high cost of designing, developing, and building a MOOC, a cost often unfeasible for the non-elite. However, with new metrics for success that show improvements in MOOC business models, as well as the proliferation of courses not just at universities but at corporations and international organizations, MOOCs may soon become more mainstream, streamlined, and affordable.

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Explosive growth like this means the number of courses is still rising. And it’s doing so daily. From January 21 to January 27, the number of MOOCs listed on Class Central grew at a rate of greater than 15 courses per day. Of course, at the start of a new year and new semester, course offerings are going to spike. But this kind of growth, like that associated with Coursera, is “faster than Facebook,” specifically in terms of having a user growth rate greater than 2,000%. That’s growth from roughly 160,000 learners at one university in 2011 to 35,000,000 learners at 570 universities and twelve providers in 2015.

Learners tend to already possess one or more degrees, fall mostly in the age range of 25-40, and often gravitate toward courses presented in one particular language: English. Today, 3 in every 4 MOOCs available are taught in “the language of global business,” with 92 out of 125 courses added between January 21 and January 30 being in English. That brings us to the first language of global business: money.

Free Courses Lose To Course Fees But Business is Booming

U.S.-based companies Microsoft and Google lead the pack of global institutions offering MOOCs. Jumping on this technological bandwagon are companies AT&T and Tenaris, who like many large corporations, are piloting internal MOOCs for corporate learning purposes. Meanwhile, “The Big 3” providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX are shedding their free and open roots one-by-one, all in favor of branching out for institutional and employer recognition on behalf of their learners, who are demanding credit for the work they put into their courses. This demand has made creators adopt a business model on the basis of a small fee for certain courses, a move that is slowly redefining MOOCs’ role in the global marketplace of online education. As Shah notes, this move might remove some prospects for MOOC takers in 2016, as “early adopters [of MOOC learning models] may find that critical components of the learning experience will no longer be free.”

So how did we go from free to fees? And why? The long and short of it is that MOOC providers realized early on that they could offer more for less by marketing courses from top-tier schools as much cheaper than universities could market a traditional college degree. In 2015, they pushed even harder for college credit through certifications like Udacity’s Nanodegree, Coursera’s Course Specialization, and edX’s Xseries, getting more private access to teachers, local cohorts, and more verified testing environments that also included anti-cheating measures and identity verification to ensure class quality.

Better intrinsic qualities have been reinforced by the extrinsic quality of institutions offering courses. Duke University, for instance, offers a Verified Certificate MOOC in “Introduction to Chemistry” for $49, a standard cost for most MOOCs. If we divide this cost by the cost per credit hour at Duke for its traditional, onsite class (i.e., $1,431) and assume a traditional “Introduction to Chemistry” course would count for 3 credit hours, we see that MOOC learners may only pay 1 percent of the cost of a college course from a top quality school. For a fee that can be 99% less than standard tuition fees at a school like Duke, it’s not wonder learners see MOOCs as a bargain.

Timeline of Subject Distribution

Yet some courses have much higher fees. These tend to fall under the category of subjects that require a lot of technical skills and have high earning potential: Science, Business & Management, and Computer Science & Programming. All of these subjects have seen substantial growth in the number of courses offered in their disciplines over the past three years. Meanwhile, subjects with lower earning potential that do not teach technical skills have sustained decay over the past three years, with Humanities courses declining rapidly from 20 percent of overall subject distribution in 2013 to less than 10 percent in 2015. This shifting distribution shows a pattern of prioritizing career outcomes for learners who are either on the job market or already in the workforce, specifically, that of technology.

Tech sector corporations like Microsoft, AT&T, and Comcast play an increasing role in this proliferation of MOOC providers and technical skills-based courses, as they have begun designing, creating, and using MOOCs with employee learning in mind. During the Spring of 2015, a FutureWorkplace study surveyed 222 officials’ interest in developing MOOCs in the workplace and found that 44 percent of respondents, all in human resources, corporate learning, and talent development, said they were interested in both creating and curating MOOCs for both internal and external use. AT&T, Microsoft, and McKinsey & Company already show promise in these arenas, as completion rates for their corporate MOOCs are either at or above 80 percent.

Employees in corporate learning departments are resistant to such interests. Like college professors, they feel that MOOCs run the chance of automating their jobs. And they have solid reasons. Despite high costs upfront, MOOCs could, in the long term, free up capital that would otherwise be invested in expensive and salaried corporate trainers. Citing a lack of budget to cover these upfront costs, however, most corporate leaders are not able to fund MOOC production unless they have very deep pockets, making the distribution of MOOCs among private corporations similar to the distribution of MOOCs among public universities: heavy at the top, light at the bottom.

Exponential Decay of MOOCs in the Larger Landscape of Higher Education

Twenty percent of massive open online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half (i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available are offered by schools within the Top 50. Course offerings per institution drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.

Looking at these numbers, we begin to see why few institutions have embraced MOOCs full-on. Not only do they cost more to make ($152,000 on the low-end, $244,000 on the high-end) than an average salaried professor, but they also run the possibility of crowding out colleges that are low hanging fruit for MOOCs to replace. At the worst, this means shaking the tree for low- and middle-tier universities. Professors at high-tier universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and U.S. News and World Report’s Top 20 National Universities (i.e., institutions that spearheaded MOOC development) have no need to fear. Their fruit grows high enough on the tree of global higher ed marketplaces for them to be safe. It’s the small schools that may start to feel their stems being picked at: community colleges, liberal arts schools, small private colleges, and non-flagship state schools on the lower end of the rankings.

Of course, MOOCs were intended to disrupt what was once an educational monopoly and compete in what is now a global marketplace for higher education. From an educator standpoint, the problem is they’ve done this too well. When public intellectuals from some large private colleges lash out at MOOCs in both news media and academic journals, it boils down to this: they’re afraid to lose their jobs. But we haven’t yet reached the point where MOOCs are literally replacing professors or universities, where the proverbial machine has become the master, and colleges are disappearing. It is still largely professors, admittedly ones from well-funded universities, who create and use MOOCs for the purpose of making a college education both affordable and accessible to audiences outside the university community.

At this moment in their short history, MOOCs still function more or less as uncredited alternatives, augmentations, and supplements to traditional modes of higher education. That’s what MOOC creators ultimately wanted their creation to serve as: a helpful, accessible, and more affordable addition to an increasingly expensive college degree. So what’s all the fuss about their lack of success?

Apples, Oranges, and Measuring the Success of Something Massively Different From Traditional College Courses

Completion rates have been the bane of MOOCs’ existence since their inception. Journalists enrolling as learners have questioned the credibility of any course you can finish in 24 hours. Economists analyzing creators’ claims to a near-zero marginal cost have pointed out that losing learners will inevitably cost money. Many of these critics assume that if MOOCs are going to succeed, their completion rates should reflect completion rates at the colleges they are sponsored by. Or worse, that MOOCs operate on a business model very similar to (and that threatens) that of a traditional university.

Pointing out that their business model targets a different audience than traditional colleges, creators prefer to look at more contextual metrics like low product cost, international reach, and comparisons of retention rates and intent as more accurate indicators of MOOC success. Metrics like these offer a more three-dimensional look at courses that seem like oranges when compared to the apples of traditional college classes, and which, when regarded in the appropriate context of free and public learning materials, are actually quite successful. It’s like the creators say, “[we] can relate the act of enrolling in a free course to checking out a book from the public library: it would be absurd to measure the book’s success strictly by the proportion of individuals who read its contents cover-to-cover.” “Few,” they add, “would consider the lack of completion or the extra time taken to be a waste or failure of the book.”

Viewing MOOCs like books–as optional reading materials for self-empowerment instead of substitutes for an increasingly mandatory college degree–places the burden of educational responsibility on learners themselves. This built-in emphasis on self-motivation means that the success of massive open online courses is more accurately measured by whether or not a course empowers learners to reach the goals they desire. In other words, a MOOC should be considered successful only insofar as a learner gets what they want from it, whether that be a new job, a new skill, or a just better grasp of how to learn. By this metric, MOOCs are much more successful than their retention numbers let on, especially for an increasing number of learners who claim tangible benefits like “receiving a pay raise, a promotion, a new job, or starting a new business” as the results of having taken massive open online courses.

In terms of learner success, MOOCs are casting a wider net than the college-aged population they initially targeted. There is already evidence to suggest that MOOCs have far-reaching international appeal that extends to learners from non-OECD countries, specifically those who are low income and have no college education, who are also those most likely to report tangible career benefits. We should expect MOOCs to continue casting wider nets in this direction and to reach beyond the audience of 35-40 year-old degree holders they appeal to most right now. Providers edX and FutureLearn, for example, recently already launched free initiatives to help high school students prepare for AP exams, explore college majors, and sample what certain schools have to offer. For the moment then, despite a hike in fees, providers still seem to give more than they take.

As fees become more standard, we can expect retention to grow. This is because fees increase the cost of investment, and the higher the cost of investment–whether that be time and money for personal edification and certification, or a new job for employees taking MOOCs in a corporate learning setting–the higher the intention of learners will be to stay and finish the course. As retention grows, we can also expect courses themselves to receive feedback from learners with more skin in the game as to whether or not they think a MOOC provided them with the knowledge and skills necessary to obtain their life goals. And as these developments occur, we can also expect public perception of MOOC success to improve.

Improving the MOOC Model with New Methods of Presentation

In 2013, a feminist collective called FemTechNet organized what was called a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC), which they titled “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology.” Like the all-caps acronym suggests, they presented the course as an “alternative genre” course that would run counter to the dominant MOOC. They write, “A DOCC recognizes and is built on the understanding that expertise is distributed throughout a network, among participants situated in diverse institutional contexts,” rather than founded on the prestige of “a single (elite) institution.” The only of its kind, the course has run for the past three years, attracting instructors from over 15 colleges and universities who teach what are called “NODAL” courses. Each NODAL, or “node” as they’re thought of in terms of a web-like body, is created at one of the volunteering instructors’ respective institutions. Although no overarching institution grants certification like MOOC providers or university sponsors do, the DOCC’s structure allows college credit transfer to students through credit-granting mechanisms already in place at each instructor’s institution. This way, learners can receive credit from a number of institutions, depending on which node they choose.

 

DOCCs

Feminism and Technology

SPOCs

The African American Experience
Indians in North America

Principles of Macroeconomics
Principles of Microeconomics

MOOCs
Learning How to Learn
Machine Learning
R Programming
Introduction to Finance
The Data Scientist’s Toolbox

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) gained steam near the end of 2013, around the same time as DOCCs. Coined by UC Berkeley professor, Armando Fox, the acronym denotes a MOOC scaled down to the local level, as SPOCs provide a smaller offshoot of the massive open online course, facilitating a more private learning environment that encourages more one-on-one engagement between instructor and student. Early SPOCs were hosted by some of the same providers (e.g., edX and MITx) and funded by some of the same sources (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) as early MOOCs. These forerunners showed great promise in the realm of pass rates and performance: one SPOC at San Jose State showed a 91 percent pass rate compared with a 65 percent pass rate for the conventional course, while another at Bunker Hill and Mass Bay Community Colleges showed students performing 10 points higher than peers who took the same class as a MOOC.

The Self-Paced Online Course emerged as another type of SPOC within the last two years and has been adopted by several state flagship universities as part of initiatives to grow more flexible online learning opportunities for small populations of non-degree seeking students. Universities that offer such courses include the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Missouri, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Showing even more promise than early SPOCs, learners who took Self-Paced Online Courses were found in a 2015 study to score an average 12.65 points higher on exams than students who took the SPOC as a conventional online courses. The same study concluded, “course and schedule flexibility may allow some students to meet or exceed the learning that would take place in the traditional face-to-face or online course.” Measuring by the student outcome of higher grades, that means SPOCs are a success.

With as many calls for entrepreneurial innovation as are occurring in the global MOOC ecosystem today, we have nowhere to look but up as massive open online courses, their attendant industries, and their competitors show no signs of slowing growth. Although much of their initial hype has died to dull roar, MOOCs may reach Gartner’s “Plateau of Productivity” sooner than we think, especially if more middle-tier universities can overcome job insecurity and push them into the mainstream, or perhaps even monetize with small tuition fees like some are already doing. Whatever the future of MOOCs may be, we can rest assured that they will continue to change the landscape of higher education, for worse or for better.

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