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State of the MOOC 2017: A Year of Privatized and Open Education Growth

State of the MOOC 2017: A Year of Privatized and Open Education Growth

Last year, we published the State of the MOOC 2016: A Year of Massive Landscape Change for Massive Open Online Courses.

Much of that article took up the question of what is going to happen to MOOCs and traditional courses as more distant learning opportunities emerge, making online and higher education more affordable and accessible to a greater number of learners?

We are confident in saying that online education is changing the landscape of higher education for the better. And that largely because it is open and privatized.

Our answer essentially came to the conclusion that, although MOOCs and online courses generally may be drastically different from face-to-face classes in terms of format, they contribute as much to the landscape of higher education as traditional classes do in terms of course content. And that, whatever the future of open online courses may be—along with the future of the open and privatized education that leaders of many of the the highest ranked public and private universities in the world now offer via MOOCs—they will continue to change the landscape of higher education, for better or for worse.

This year, after new research has brought to light more details about the direction online courses are taking, we are confident in saying that online education is changing the landscape of higher education for the better. And that largely because it is open and privatized.

We reached this conclusion based on the combined findings of our State of the MOOC from last year and new findings by the Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate,
and WCET about declines in enrollment at predominantly online for-profit universities. These downturns have been matched by rises in enrollment at predominantly online, non-profit universities, with the largest enrollment boosts being felt at private, nonprofit institutions of higher education. These findings suggest that competition has been introduced to the online learning marketplace, likely in such a way as to foster accountability in the online education industry. That industry also appears to be approaching a natural state of being governed by standards that online learners are developing and adhering to of their own accord.

That industry also appears to be approaching a natural state of being governed by standards that online learners are developing and adhering to of their own accord.

Roughly, this set of standards is taking shape around the following decision-making principles:

  • Avoid closed online colleges and universities beset with lawsuits or scandals.
  • Look for institutions that appear open and transparent.
  • Choose courses and degree programs that can be completed mostly or entirely online.

But before we get ahead of ourselves in considering the implications that this budding set of standards has for the state of online education, it would help to get a better picture of the online learner’s situation. This is because the online learner’s developing standards are being formed by the larger landscape of higher education, where both traditional and online learners have many paths to navigate as they choose from a multiplying set of online courses, online degree programs, and even online careers.

Finding 1: Amid Declining Enrollments in Higher Education Overall, Private For-Profits Depopulate, While Private Non-Profits Rise in Popularity

Babson, e-Literate, and WCET’s Distance Education Enrollment Report shows that overall enrollments in higher education are down, having declined from 20,928,443
in 2012 to 20,266,367, a compound annual growth rate of -3.2% over the course of 4 years. This consistent negative growth rate is especially noteworthy when it’s compared with the consistent positive growth rate of enrollments at colleges
and universities between 2002 and 2012, which averaged a +2.7% compound annual growth rate for all enrollments in higher education.


From Distance Education Enrollment Report

The same report shows that, during the same 4-year time frame, that is, between January 2012 and December 2015, the annual growth rate for enrollments in distance education courses or degree programs was +3.9%. In fact, overall enrollment in distance
education courses increased for both graduate and undergraduate courses from 5.5 million distance learners in 2012 to over 6 million distance learners in 2015. Although this growth is much less explosive than it was in the decade between 2002 and 2012,
a time when it was not uncommon for distance education enrollments to grow at double digit rates, its consistency is notable for having bucked the trend of declining enrollments everywhere else.

This could, and very likely does mean, that online education is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to and supplement for some forms higher education, but especially the private for-profit university. For indeed, except at for-profits,
the proportion of the college student population that is enrolled in at least one form of distance education is also up.

As of 2014, at least 1 in every 4 college students in the United States was enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting institutions of higher education. As of 2017, that ratio
is up to approximately 1 in every 3 college students in the United States, with 30% of all enrollees taking at least one distance education course. That’s over 6 million college students in the United States that have enrolled in some form of distance education, which is not even counting the number of non-college students enrolled in distance education courses around the world.

So open and privatized online education is here, not only to stay, but to play. And in fact, it appears here to play on the same team as some of the biggest players in the higher education industry, in both its public and private arenas.

Finding 2: While Disparities Widen Between Top and Bottom Ranked Colleges and Universities, a Relationship Develops Between Open Online Education and a Quality Education

We can find proof that open and privatized education is on the same team as some of the biggest public and private players in the higher education industry by looking no further than our comparative snapshots of colleges and universities that offer MOOCs.


The total number of massive open online courses offered between last year and this year has increased by over 2,000 new MOOCs. This increase in online course options, along with the inverse relationship it demonstrates between college ranking and the
number of MOOCs a college or university can offer, have intensified across the spectrum of the United States’ top-ranked universities. Where the average number of MOOCs offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National Universities was roughly
12 in January of 2016, that average has increased to roughly 17 MOOCs per college or university in the Top 100 as of June 2017.

Meanwhile, the disparity between the Top 50 and Bottom 50 colleges and universities within that range has also increased. The average number of MOOCs per college or university in the Top 50 grew from approximately 21 to 31, as the average number of MOOCs
per college or university in the Bottom 50 grew from 3 to 5. This means the disparity between the number of MOOCs offered by U.S. News’ Top 50 and Bottom 50 National Universities has increased from 18 MOOCs to 26 MOOCs, meaning that institutions in
U.S. News and World Report’s Top 50 colleges and universities now offer 26 more MOOCs on average than institutions in the Bottom 50. This growing gap in online course offerings between the Top 50 and Bottom 50 makes the inverse relationship between
an institution’s rank and the total number of MOOCs it can offer even more pronounced.

That gap also implies a slight correlation between colleges and universities who can offer more MOOCs and colleges and universities that rank higher on U.S. News and World Report’s scale.

That gap also implies a slight correlation between colleges and universities who can offer more MOOCs and colleges and universities that rank higher on U.S. News and World Report’s scale. And while there are certainly not enough data to claim causation
(i.e., that a college or university ranks higher because it has more MOOCs), there are enough data to show that open and privatized education is on the same team as some of the biggest public and private players in the higher education industry.
Of course, this fact comes as little surprise when we consider the additional fact that open online education got its start at Ivy League universities like Stanford and MIT, the two top open online course providing universities in the world for two
years running.

What this slight correlation means for the higher education industry as a whole remains to be seen, but its discernable pattern will be a trend for educators online and at traditional universities to watch going forward. What it means for open and privatized
education is more clear—i.e., that MOOCs are following the steady trajectory of other online courses, especially as their population, popularity, and quality continue to grow, despite negative trends to the contrary for closed courses and more traditional
educational formats.

The biggest question that remains is whether the privatized status of these online providers—most all of which are now charging fees for MOOCs and their other online courses—will close or overshadow the more free and open spirit with which they were created.
For now at least, it seems that small fees for certificates and lower tuition for MOOCs and online degree programs are not closing the accessibility barriers they sought to open, but are rather opening up
more opportunities for students to earn a competitive, skills-based education, as well as provide a potential safety net should the tuition bubble burst for traditional higher education in the U.S.

Finding 3: International Universities Begin to Compete with MOOC Offerings

Other findings based on the second snapshot we’ve taken of Class Central’s MOOC database in as many years include the fact that the total number of MOOC Providers has increased from 37 to 39 at a growth rate of 5%, while total number of Universities offering MOOCs has increased from 570 to 709, at a growth rate of 24%. The total number of MOOCs also increased notably from 3,562 to 5,924, at a growth rate of 66%.

Much of the growth in total number of MOOCs available is attributable to the growth of MOOC offerings at international universities. In fact, the number of international universities offering 20 or greater MOOCs increased from 13 schools within a range of 36 colleges and universities—that’s roughly 36% of all the top MOOC-offering universities in the world—to 37 schools within a range of 72 colleges and universities. That’s approximately 51% of the top MOOC-offering universities in the world, or 1 in every 2, which spells a growth rate of 184% for international universities that have the capacity to offer 20 MOOCs or greater to their students.

Just as the online education model appears to be disrupting the wider higher education industry by instituting healthy competition with its open and privatized model, so do international universities seem to be disrupting the online education industry
with explosive growth rates. These growth rates could spell a surge of relevance for international universities that are not from the United States, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, which produced 23 new online courses in nearly
half as many months. They could also spell international investment in an increasingly likely future scenario where online, skills-based education competes even more closely with with traditional forms education in terms of accessibility, affordability,
and quality.

An interview we published last month perhaps offers some of our best insight into
of the state of online education at the moment. Indeed, judging by Dr. Oakley’s and Coursera’s answers to our questions about the future of MOOCs and online education, the industry looks successful not only in terms of base popularity, but also in terms
of educational transparency and competitive quality, especially for the population of online learners that is growing every year.

Finding 4: Verifiable Testing and Certification Become Increasingly Credible for Proving Skills-Based (Corporate) Education

One of the first hurdles for online courses to overcome was identity verification. Without knowing whether or not the student sitting across the screen was in fact who they said they were, online courses from even the most prestigious U.S. universities faced a credibility crisis. This crisis became especially trying during online education’s earliest days, when there were fewer available measures to verify student identity, and when lack of oversight meant the possibility of leaving loopholes open for course enrollees to cheat. The possibility of cheating became especially prevalent when it emerged that an entire industry had cropped up with the express purpose of helping online students cheat for a fee, which led many college professors, and particularly those still situated in traditional classrooms (but also many MOOC instructors) to believe that online courses were hotbeds for cheating students.

Today, the belief that online courses are any more hotbeds for student cheating than traditional classes has been debunked as a myth, especially after it emerged that online and in-class students admitted cheating at the exact same rate (i.e., 32%). Still, the fear-inspiring image of tech-savvy students finding ways to circumvent the identity verification process has led online course providers to engineer of a number of secure measures for testing whether or not a student is who they say they are.

Current means of verifying identity include passport photo identification for admission and certification; unique keystroke analysis for written responses; supervised testing centers for proctored examinations; live webcams for exit interviews and quizzing; as well as secure authorization services to perform background checks. Combinations thereof are often used to verify student identity and guarantee course credibility across a multitude of online course provider platforms, but especially MOOCs, which are climbing the ladder of academic credibility slowly but surely, as they develop ways for their courses to count as college credit.

MOOC provider platforms that are working hardest to develop ways for their courses to count as college credit include edX, whose graduate-level MicroMasters™ courses can be taken to earn credentials in a specific career field, are valued by top companies like Walmart and GE, as well as can be included in academic portfolios as a pathway to college credit. EdX also offers Professional Certificates for professional skill enhancement in high-demand, technical-skills based industries like Data Science, Computer Science, and Web Development. Meanwhile, Udacity now offers Nanodegree Programs that are endorsed by some of the most prestigious tech companies in the world and specialize in helping students learn by doing the skills necessary to earn and perform jobs in technology, such Digital Marketing, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence, most of which are highly technical and skills-based.

And in quite the development from last year, there are now a small number of international universities and MOOC providers whose courses can lead to college credit through accrediting mechanisms such as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

International Providers Whose MOOCs Can Lead to College Credit

(Source: MoocLab)

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Let us know what you think about the state of online education today.