Eduvation Blog

Disrupting MOOCs in a Pandemic

Good morning!

Since we spent all of yesterday’s issue on COVID19, and very little has changed today, instead let’s dive into some recent stories about Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs have enjoyed a resurgence of interest during the pandemic, like they haven’t seen since 2012, the “Year of the MOOC.”

But are MOOCs disrupting higher education, or being disrupted themselves? (I tried to maintain an ambiguous tension in today’s subject line.)

Will MOOCs steal market share from traditional institutions as students tire of “Zoom U” and pursue a more modular education? (Spoiler: Not in this lifetime!)

Will colleges and universities turn to major MOOC platforms as Online Program Management (OPM) platforms? (Some already are.)

Will MOOCs provide useful educational content that faculty can integrate into their courses?  Will MOOCs also attract many non-credit continuing ed students who might otherwise enrol in campus courses? (Almost certainly!)

Like so many other trends that have been puttering along for a decade, the coronavirus pandemic kicked MOOCs into overdrive…



Since uManitoba pioneered the MOOC in 2008, and Coursera hype erupted in 2012, more than 900 universities have launched 13,500 MOOC courses and attracted 110M learners. But this spring, the abrupt transition to emergency remote delivery by virtually every PSE institution worldwide created a surge of interest in MOOCs from students, and pandemic lockdowns freed up time for laid off workers to consider intellectual pursuits or free upskilling…


Popular Topics in a Pandemic

The 10 most popular MOOCs offered by Coursera in 2019 were dominated by digital skills and AI, starting with “Machine Learning,” by Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng. Courses in programming with Python, AI, Neural Networks, Algorithms and Data Science represent 7 of the top 10 courses – but “Learning How to Learn” comes in at #2, “The Science of Well-Being” at #3, and “English for Career Development” at #7. LinkedIn Learning’s20 most popular courses attracted 30M learners, from courses on Time Management, Critical and Strategic Thinking, Interpersonal Communications, and naturally Python programming and Excel tips, to particularly timely courses in Microsoft Teams and Remote Work Foundations. Class Central reports that the 100 most popular MOOCs attracted 11.7M enrolments, and 20% of them were for Yale’s “Science of Well-Being” alone. Several courses on psychology, religion, art, languages and writing suggest many learners were pursuing personal development in a time of anxiety and forced idleness – although many other courses look like workers upskilling and reskilling for a changing, largely online, labour market.


Colleges turn to Coursera and EdX

Coursera offered free access to its online PSE courses this summer under its “Coursera for Campus” program, attracting thousands of institutions and some 40M enrolments between mid-March and late August – 5 times its growth a year earlier. “Many tens of institutions” have started to assign parts of Coursera courses as part of for-credit courses, “like courseware.” A limited version of C4C will continue to be offered free, but colleges can access the full Coursera library of >4,000 courses, and additional services (like online proctoring and authoring tools), for a fee. EdX offered a similar service, “Online Campus,” to colleges free this spring. “Colleges are in a position where they need to move online faster than they ever imagined, and they also need to attend to their bottom line in ways that they hadn’t previously imagined.” As a result, many have been considering granting credit for courses created by Coursera.  EdSurge

“I think the barriers are starting to fall, and professors are starting to realize that it’s too hard to do all this myself. I’d like to use some stuff that was created by other institutions… to help me with my online teaching.”Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera


Freshmen Struggle Online

It was obvious (at least to me) when Arizona State U and edX launched the “Global Freshman Academy” in 2015, that very few incoming undergraduates would be able to accumulate a year’s worth of credits through MOOCs. (After 5 years and 373,000 enrolled learners, only 1,750 received ASU credit and fewer than 150 have transferred to ASU.) Online learning demands discipline, motivation, and focus that few teens possess; most of the students who sought credit already held an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The GFA was an exciting, even alarming, prospect: earn all your first-year credits for $200 per credit hour, instead of $700 or more at ASU. But the GFA also didn’t qualify for government financial aid, and offered fewer supports to at-risk students, who often need emotional support and encouragement, as well as academic assistance. And of course, “undergraduates who study solely online miss out on the maturing, socializing, and networking that take place on campus.” (MOOCs seem much more appropriate and effective at the graduate level, and the same may be true of emergency remote delivery.)  Education Next

“Education technology has just become weaponized. Arizona State is now the first predator university.”Jonathan Rees, Prof of History, Colorado State U Pueblo


Georgia Tech Dumps Udacity

Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) was developed as a partnership with Udacity and launched in Spring 2014 – and it attracted my attention as the first MOOC-based degree program, growing to almost 10,000 students a year. GT provided faculty, assessments, curriculum and content, while Udacity helped with production and hosting, for a rumoured 40% cut of revenues. Over the past 6 years, Udacity has become less and less valuable to GT, and as of this fall all 40 courses in the OMSCS are being offered directly using Canvas and Kaltura instead of the Udacity platform. Udacity has been focusing on nanodegrees and industry partnerships instead of university programs, even replacing CEO Sebastian Thrun (a Stanford prof) with Vishal Makhijan (a business executive). In pursuit of profit, Udacity has quadrupled the price of their nanodegrees, and significantly cut their free courses.  Class Central


Google XSeries Certificates

Google has launched its own XSeries Certificate on edX, “Power Searching with Google.” The $350 course “teaches you how to harness and build online search skills while improving the ability to accurately and efficiently validate the information found.” Google is listed as an edX member, alongside Queen’s U, uMontréal, NYU and Purdue. And, considering that it has enrolled 75,000 students in its IT Support certificateprograms on Coursera, Google is competing directly with PSE computing programs – and dozens of major employers are recruiting their grads. uLondon and Northeastern U are offering transfer credit for the certificate into select degree programs, and dozens of community colleges are partnering to deliver the Google certificate for credit to their students at no charge.  edX


Unconventional Online Classes

MOOC providers who provide academic credit for online courses, like EdX, Coursera and Udacity, saw huge spikes in traffic this spring. Coursera saw a 398% increase in users between March and April, especially a 1662% increase among university students, and has had $130M in new investment since February. But less “traditional” platforms offering general interest educational content (of a sort) are also gaining momentum. This year, Airbnb has launched >700 new “Experiences,” which earned hosts >$2M since April. Instagram Liveis offering some remarkably popular classes, from “Colourpop Cosmetics makeup tutorial” (697,000 views) and “Rupi Kaur’s poetry class” (657,000) to “Goop’s organization tips with life coach Shira Gill” (255,000) and “Ryan Heffington’s Sweatfast dance class” (112,000). MasterClass attracted $100M in investment this year, and now offers >85 classes from “the world’s best minds” including Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dan Brown, and star performers like Steve Martin, Reba McEntire, Natalie Portman, or Samuel L Jackson.  Fast Company


“College is Never Coming Back”?

“One of America’s most broken industries is finally being exposed as a sham,” writes investment analyst Stephen McBride in Forbes, marking “the end of college as we know it.” (Obviously he doesn’t understand higher ed at all, but it’s useful to know what is being said out there in the media.) A “lightning bolt of disruption just fried the business model… NOBODY is willing to pay $30,000/year to watch lecturers on Zoom calls.” As a result, families will save money, and kids will “no longer be lured into the socialist indoctrination centres that many American campuses have become.” But his main focus is investors, “who stand to make a killing on the companies that’ll disrupt college for good.” He predicts that MOOC platforms will start offering degree programs at deep discounts, putting many “middle-of-the-road” US colleges out of business. “Nimble online schools will do to traditional colleges what Amazon did to department stores.” Forbes

“A lightning bolt of disruption just fried the business model… NOBODY is willing to pay $30,000/year to watch lecturers on Zoom calls… Nimble online schools will do to traditional colleges what Amazon did to department stores.”Stephen McBride in Forbes


As usual, I think we’ll find the reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. MOOCs will not replace traditional undergraduate education, but may well be a model for many online graduate programs, and may serve as valuable resources in other courses. (In a sense, the MOOC is an electronic textbook on steroids.)

And as we’re forced to deliver courses in online or hybrid forms (probably until fall 2022 at least), we can no doubt learn a great deal about effective online delivery, engagement, and assessment from the massive amounts of data gathered by MOOC platforms over the past decade.


Now Is Your Time

Seneca College did a nice job speaking to the realities of the pandemic, without allowing them to overshadow a message of empowerment. “These are real Seneca graduates and students taking on the challenges of NOW.” “Now is your time… to care, to innovate, advocate, move, fly, dare.”  YouTube


Thanks for reading! Be safe and stay well,

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