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The Maturing MOOC

Online courses are changing -- sometimes less open, sometimes less massive -- but they're still relevant.

March 6, 2019
 

In the summer of 2011 we produced eduMOOC -- a constructivist massive open online course about online learning with the help of a small group of talented and expert professionals at the University of Illinois Springfield as well as colleagues around the country who were then, and continue to be, among the leaders in our field of online learning. By the time it concluded in August, eduMOOC had reached 2,700 learners in 70 countries -- making it among the largest such classes produced up to that time.

Some of the most successful early MOOCs were produced by a couple of Canadians, Stephen Downes and George Siemens. They were groundbreaking. Many early MOOCs were largely low budget (compared to today), noncredit, interactive, volunteer efforts. Moving outside the institutional structure, they reached beyond the campus, beyond the country and into many languages and cultures. Just one month after eduMOOC, Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and Google launched a massive-scale MOOC on artificial intelligence surpassing 150,000 students. And the X-MOOC era had begun. The year 2012 was declared “the year of the MOOC.”

Over time these freestanding classes were collected and hosted by the likes of Coursera, Udacity, edX, FutureLearn and XuetangX. They offered certificates and degrees.

And soon, some commentators declared MOOCs “dead” or “failures.” The newer generation of MOOCs were massive and online and courses, but they were not open in the purest sense. Some had prerequisites and others had fees.

Certainly, MOOCs have changed. They have matured in scale and sophistication. While many are now not truly “open,” as in free, without prerequisites, they are more massive than before and are far less expensive than the cost of on-campus offerings. There are now more than 5,000 recognized MOOCs generally available. Some are self-paced and can be started and completed on your schedule. Class-Central keeps a roster of available MOOCs.

Just a few weeks ago, I took a short MOOC offered jointly by McMaster University and the University of California, San Diego, through Coursera: Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects. Some two million people have taken the course. It was refreshingly engaging and useful to sharpen my learning and retention skills. As with many such courses, it was free to take and only required $49 for a certificate of completion. I got the certificate and put it in my LinkedIn profile.

In the past couple of years, certificates and entire master’s degrees have become available through MOOCs. There are now 45 online at-scale master’s degrees, with many more on the way.

As highlighted in a previous posting, Georgia Tech is among the leaders in the delivery of affordable at-scale degrees, including the master of science in computer science program -- the largest online MS in CS in the world. The University of Illinois offers four master’s degrees through Coursera. The University of Pennsylvania is offering an at-scale baccalaureate to begin this fall. There certainly will be many more. What began as largely volunteer, noncredit efforts have now matured into full-blown master’s and baccalaureate degrees that are changing the landscape of higher education. The trend promises to capture a sizable portion of all online degree-seeking students in the coming few years.

MOOCs will continue to evolve. The groundbreaking work of Ashok Goel at Georgia Tech in developing a virtual teaching assistant is a key milestone in enabling these large-scale classes to engage students and to potentially personalize learning. In the meantime, the essential online, at-scale characteristics will make them affordable and attractive to students around the world.

The MOOC did not die. Rather, it grew up into a mature, fully-functional degree platform that is serving millions of learners globally on a daily basis. At-scale learning is too large to ignore. It is changing the learning environment worldwide. In less than a decade, this phenomenon has moved from the fringes of education to the fastest-growing format for certificates and degrees, having just passed the 100-million-learner mark last year.

Are you delivering at-scale learning? Have you noticed the impact of large-enrollment programs on enrollments in your “traditional” online degree programs? How are you adapting your offerings to make them competitive? These are questions that we should all be asking in the changing environment of online learning.

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