MOOCs, certainly a storm but how big is the tea cup?

Posted on 24/04/2013


This week’s front page of the University World News website features one ecstatic article on the development of MOOCs in Asia ( ) and one on Europe finally entering into the enlightened world of MOOCs ( ). By looking at the Google Trends graph on the acronym, MOOCs are certainly a much discussed topic.

Mooc trend

What’s wrong with that is that MOOCs have most of the characteristics of a bubble and that, as usual with a bubble, nobody cares. There is an irrational and unsubstantial belief that MOOCs are the future of the business, despite the existence of any business model. All sorts of universities are jumping in, reputed ones and unknown ones, investing significant amount of time and money, thinking that they need to be considered as an early entrant, that positions are taken now. Early results make universities think that it will work, as tens of thousands of people are enrolling in the first experiments. And if there is no viable business model now, one will come up eventually (reminds you of Internet 14 years ago?).

The belief that universities will be able to monetize the offer one day is as wrong as it was for all sorts of websites and apps 15 years ago. Why is that?

. the ones which can monetize their offer are already positioned. Who are they? MIT, Harvard on one hand who are already positioned as leaders and are already monetizing by increasing if needed their brand value as technology and educational leaders, by potentially attracting donors for their activities. In some ways, they don’t really care about the investment, the return for them is obvious. But is it really the same for tier 2 regional universities in Australia or Germany for example? Not sure. On the other hand, Coursera has already reached a critical mass allowing it to start being able to potentially monetize the information gathered (remember the network effect?). It is no surprise that most newcomers want to team up either with EdX or Coursera. By doing so, they don’t create more value for them but more value for these 2 providers. Of course, as first entrants, EdX and Coursera are not immune to the arrival of competitors but they are the ones in place for the moment. Furthermore, beside the current euphoria, universities will realize soon that developing online content has a certain cost (up to 1 million USD for a unit in one of the oldest and most reputable online university) and that this content needs to be updated regularly. For how long can they cover the cost if they don’t know how to generate any incomes? Or is it just one of those fades which will disappear with the next budget cut? If universities are serious about developing MOOCs, they cannot avoid this question.

. numbers of people enrolled are showing all the characteristics of a fade. People going seriously for MOOCs should not be that disconnected from people enrolling for fee paying online degrees. It is not scientific, but if we take the 30 largest providers in the Financial Times list of Online MBAs (it is a list, not a ranking) for 2010 to 2013, number of students enrolled are 49000 in 2010, 38000 in 2011, 46000 in 2012 and 41000 in 2013. So, among what the FT considers as being the most serious (if not the best) online MBAs, the enrollment is rather stable, around 40 to 50000 students. Then, we read about the objectives of many universities, to have 1 or 2 million people enrolled in MOOCs. Does it really make sense? Elearning was also presented 15 years ago as a disrupter. It is far from being the case. On the contrary, it developed (rather slowly in many countries), to occupy one slice of the market which was previously not addressed: people who don’t have immediate access to higher education and/or time to commit to face-to-face learning, mostly because of their locations or because of their work schedule. No disruption here.

. by essence, a MOOC cannot replace a genuine degree. There are limits to what universities can do for free and without awarding credits. MOOCs cannot for the moment afford to have the same level of rigor than smaller scale online units, or face-to-face ones, particularly because of the cost related to moderation and marking, where academics are still the best thing we have found so far. Peer evaluations can work in the context of units chosen by people choosing to specialize in one area and in advanced units. But can you seriously give credits for evaluations done by 5 other people following the unit, who could have no prior knowledge in the area, nor have any interest in evaluating you (what’s the reward to do a proper one)? MOOCs, as they are now, do not provide any clear assurance of learning, which is key to become accepted credits. And then, you have the question of the brand dilution. If it is now good for Harvard or MIT to appear as technology leaders and as democratizer of higher education, do you really think that they can afford to have people claiming “Harvard” credits on their CVs? And what about employers? When they hire a Harvard graduate, it is for many reasons, including the mentoring, the pastoral care, the communication skills, the extracurricular activities… which are not covered in a MOOC.

The rush of many universities to develop MOOCs is largely irrational and can divert resources from the building of a clear strategy to expand the number of reachable students. Access to higher education is an important challenge but MOOCs are certainly not the only answer and as they are now, do not provide the assurance of learning needed for any training to be useful to the participants.