If MOOCs had delivered on the most optimistic of their expectations, small remote villages might be halfway through the development of a self-driving car. Microsoft might be flooded with applicants who didn’t graduate high school but aced their Big Data course. The great ambition for MOOCs was to democratize education, allowing anyone, anywhere, with any background to access high quality courses on most any topic. As it turns out, reality has come in and changed the expectations for MOOCs. Several factors came together, but the simple explanation is that free, voluntary, online courses attracted mainly middle class, educated, tech-savvy students. Exceptions were—and are—everywhere, but in a market-based system the supply of a good will cater to where the demand is coming from. Like a river, production will flow into areas where it meets the least resistance. That is currently what is happening with MOOCs and their descendants.
Today, several factors are changing the MOOC landscape. The following is not a comprehensive list, but some of more visible trends I’ve noticed recently:
First, the number of MOOCs and their students continue to grow, but they are increasingly specializing. In 2015, MOOCs are developing a “long tail” where niche courses attract smaller cohorts.
Second, students want more support for their courses. Thus, we have Udacity coaches who act as personal tutors for smaller groups. EdX has developed CCX courses, which essentially allows educators to copy, personalize and teach MOOC content to small groups. These are worthy developments, but they necessarily restrict the Massive and Open adjectives in MOOC.
Finally, MOOC providers invest significant money in creating these courses, and they need to see a return on that investment. This return comes in many forms. The most common approach today is to offer paid certificates for MOOCs. Auditing the course is free (often), but a verified certificate that proves you learned something costs money. And there are other ways. Universities are offering their own MOOCs in order to generate new student leads. Or, perhaps the most simple, some professional education programs simply charge tuition, in which case the term MOOC is undoubtedly a misnomer.
What we are seeing is somewhat of a circular evolution. Circular in that we are in many ways back to where we started, but it is undoubtedly an evolution. We’ve gone from online courses, to MOOCs…back to online courses, and picked up some better practices and a lot more visibility and interest on the way. While pure MOOCs exist, there are a whole lot of other programs that have sprung up that aren’t necessarily Massive or Open. I’ll call those Specialty Online Programs. In part 2, we’ll talk about what some of those specialty programs look like.