What’s a MOOC?

By | Updated June 26, 2014 3:05 PM UTC

If 2012 was loudly proclaimed to be The Year of the MOOC, the two years since then may have been The Time of Second Thoughts about Massive Open Online Courses. The idea behind MOOCs is still appealing — using the Internet to open up the lecture hall at no charge, reaching tens of thousands of students at a time from poor countries and rich ones alike. The success of the first truly massive courses triggered grand predictions of a revolution in higher education. The focus now is on more mundane matters, like getting more than a tiny fraction of students who start MOOCs to finish and figuring out how to pay for their production. A growing number of academic leaders are questioning whether MOOCs are a sustainable model at all. Meanwhile, students of all ages and nationalities continue to vote with their clicks: More than 10 million people have signed up for classes in everything from computer science to Greek mythology.

The Situation

The Big Three in MOOCs are Coursera and Udacity, both for-profit companies, and EdX, a nonprofit run by Harvard and MIT. Like other media companies, their business challenge is to find ways to make money while offering their content for free. One strategy is to charge for credits or certificates and for the testing required to produce them. In 2013, the American Council on Education recommended that five Coursera MOOCs be accepted for college credit — and the company raised $43 million from investors. Udacity introduced an online master’s degree in computer science with the Georgia Institute of Technology for less than $7,000 — about a third of the degree’s on-campus cost. It’s also forged partnerships with companies like AT&T and Google to offer what it calls “nanodegrees” — industry-driven credentials that it says will qualify students for specific jobs. Many selective universities were early to invest in MOOCs, but U.S. colleges at large have shown caution — just 5 percent offered a MOOC in 2013. Meanwhile, more traditional online education — courses offered only to tuition-paying students as part of a college curriculum — continues to grow. When Starbucks announced a tuition-reimbursement plan to help employees earn college credits online, its partner was Arizona State University, not a MOOC provider.

Source: Coursera, EdX, Udacity

The Background

MOOCs have many forebears. First there were correspondence courses, then classes over radio, television, cassettes, CDs and DVDs. Professors have been sharing course material on the Internet for more than a decade. MIT began posting its class material online in 2002 under the OpenCourseWare project. Yale started a similar effort in 2007, while Richard Levin, now the CEO of Coursera, was president. Then in 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google research director Peter Norvig offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” a video lecture series with online testing and 160,000 people signed up. It wasn’t the first MOOC but it was the first at that scale, and it launched a movement. Thrun went on to start Udacity, while other Stanford professors formed Coursera. The concept’s challenges soon became apparent: Early data showed that only a small portion of students completed courses, and an experiment backed by California Gov. Jerry Brown to offer low-cost classes through MOOCs at San Jose State University was quickly abandoned when the online students lagged behind. Still, Coursera and Edx began offering classes from universities in Asia and Europe.  And Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim‘s foundation forged a pact with Coursera to translate 50 MOOCs into Spanish.

The Argument

Some educators question how effective MOOCs are at increasing access to higher education, as studies showed that the vast majority of those who signed up were already college-educated.  Proponents argue that while hundreds of thousands of users may drop out, tens of thousands stay in, including students without degrees or from developing nations. A survey found that growing number of academic leaders say questions of quality will persist for all online education. Both proponents and skeptics say that for MOOCs to be successful, they will need to be able to offer credits that both students and employers will find meaningful. What’s less clear is whether MOOCs will turn out to be a force for revolutionary change, or end up a subset to the slightly less new trend of online classes tied to colleges in more traditional ways.

The Reference Shelf

First published June 26, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:
Michael McDonald in Boston at mmcdonald10@bloomberg.net
Erin Zlomek in New York at ezlomek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net