This year was supposed to be the Year of the MOOC. With summer coming, it’s worth asking the question: how have they done and where are they headed?
To me, the answer comes down to developments in three areas:
Demand. This year, MOOCs have proved that i) there is lots of interest in free, continuing education out there – mostly from people who already have degrees – and ii) there are an awful lot of universities who think that catering to that demand (by dropping $50,000/course to mount their own MOOCs) is a good investment in their own brand.
Profitability. Evidence that free MOOCs make economic sense is still thin. Udacity survives thanks to VC money, EdX on the charity of its vastly-endowed founding members, and Coursera on a combination of the two. All of the main mooted ways of making money – talent-spotting for businesses, students paying for certificates, etc. have apparently come to naught. The day VCs ask for their money back is looming.
Accreditation. In the end, the only way to get revenue is if the courses are of value to students in terms of credit or credentials, which none of the MOOCs can do on their own. Attempts to force the issue– for instance, efforts by state legislatures in California and Florida to force colleges to accept MOOCs for credit – have not gone well.
Pedagogically, there is starting to be a consensus around three judgements. First, MOOCs in subjects that can be tailored to machine-learning (computer science and math being the most obvious) are – for non-remedial students at least – pretty good. Second, that they don’t really represent an advance in pedagogy because they’re still built around “the sage on the stage”. And third, despite that, many of them still constitute a good set of learning resources which can supplements regular old classes in meatspace. This is the MOOCs-as-textbooks, or MOOCs-as-MOORs meme that’s popped up quite a bit in recent weeks.
I think this last is about right; there’s a lot to like about the current generation of MOOCs as replacements or supplements to textbooks. The problem is there’s no obvious revenue stream associated with this option, so it’s hard time to seeing this as a durable outcome.
The other possibility is simply to become independent providers of online education in specialized fields of study. Udacity seems to be going this way with its recently-announced (and heavily subsidized by AT&T) MSc in Computer science with Georgia Tech. It hasn’t publicly said it’s switching strategy (though a poorly thought-out media release from their partners at the University of Alberta seems to have let the cat out of the bag), but it makes eminent sense. I find that Udacity’s insistence on calling it a “MOOC-MBA” (i.e. associated with Ivy League universities) rather than an “online MBA” (i.e. associated with University of Phoenix”) is ironically hilarious; even online, prestige is all.