What Future for MOOCs?

The world of MOOCs – massive online open courses – is moving rapidly. Initial excitement about the possibility of MOOCs to democratize education has now moved into more measured discussions about how to make that happen. While MOOCs have certainly provided tens of thousands of learners with access to lectures by engaging and thoughtful professors, their impact appears to have been limited. The vast majority – up to 90% of those who start these courses – do not complete them. The most effective MOOCS, sceptics say, function more like traditional distance learning courses, and are hardly disrupting the world of higher education. 

The long-term future of MOOCs is far from clear. What will need to happen if MOOCs are to truly open up the world of higher education?

Read what four leading experts have to say on the topic. 

MOOCs Will Play a Vital Role in Developing Countries
MOOCs Will Play a Vital Role in Developing Countries
MOOCs Will Ultimately Play a Transformational Role

Opening Up Knowledge to the World Is a Wondrous Thing

Mr. Donald Clark
Former CEO of Epic Group PLC, Technology Blogger
Oct 06, 2013
"The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” William Gibson

No sooner had MOOCs emerged they were being attacked by academe as being simplistic, pedagogically vacuous, inadequate on assessment, with lots of dropouts – a fad. Many in higher education still see them as superfluous, if not dangerous. But they’re not going away. MOOCs have, in fact, been around since the inception of the web. I spent decades delivering them into large organizations to very large audiences, often in the tens of thousands. Higher education took some time to catch up -- and when it did -- finally opening up knowledge to the world, it was a wondrous thing. To counter the negativity, what's needed is a bit of myth busting….

7 MOOC myths

MOOC myth 1: Dropouts

I'm not a dropout, I'm a dropin!
I've dropped into a number of MOOCs. Some I've liked and persevered with, others I've had my fill of after a short-time. For most, life is too short and I don't have the time, others have been awful, too slow and ponderous for words. But it's all good, that's what I expected. But I resent being universally classed as a 'dropout' and used as an excuse to dis' MOOCs.

Category mistake

Is it inappropriate to take the word ‘dropout’ from one context and stamp it upon another? With MOOCs I’d call it a ‘category mistake’, when a word is used to mean one thing (pejoratively) in the context of a long school, college or University course, then applied with the same pejorative force to a very different type of learning experience. Stopping during a MOOC is very different from dropping out school or expensive long-term degree.


Lots of people dropout from MOOCS.  So what? Lots of people stop doing lots of things. Lots of people don’t finish books but we don’t see this as a sign of intellectual failure. Lots of students don’t attend lectures and drop out in terms of attention. In fact they nearly all do. Lots of people drop out of college because the course, institution, teaching method, boredom, other opportunities, debt or academia are not for them. The future is not about locking learners into experiences like prison sentences, it’s about flexibility.

MOOCs are not failure factories

MOOCs must not be seen as failure factories. They must rise above the education models that filter and weed out learners through failure. Good MOOCs will allow you to truly go at your own pace, to stop and start, go off on an exploratory path and return again. This is what true adult learning is and should be. The future of learning is not to copy but to complement or construct new models of learning. 

Uptake not dropout

We need to look at uptake, not dropout. It’s astonishing that MOOCs exist at all, never mind the millions, and shortly many millions, who have tried them. Dropout is a highly pejorative term that comes from ‘schooling’. The ‘high school dropout’. He’s ‘dropped out of university’. It's this pathological view of education that has got us into this mess in the first place. MOOCs are NOT school.  They eschew the lecture hall. They are more about learning than teaching. MOOCs, like BOOKs, need to be seen as widely available opportunities, not compulsory attendance schooling. They need to be encouraged, not disparaged.

MOOC myth 2: They’re all the same

All MOOCs are not created equal. There are  transferMOOCs, madeMOOCs, synchMOOCs, asynchMOOCs, adaptiveMOOCs, groupMOOCs, connectivistMOOCS, gameMOOCs, miniMOOCSs. From decanted transferMOOCs, which you could describe as being on the cutting edge of tradition, to adaptive and mini-MOOCs, new models are emerging that now make this a very diverse landscape. I’ve been involved in funding an adaptive MOOC with leading-edge artificial intelligence (AI) techniques. The point of MOOCs like these is to create the future, not mimic the past.

MOOC myth 3: It’s a fad

MOOC mania seemed to come from nowhere. Faster than Facebook and here to stay. In just a year, MOOCs emerged from a unique mix of entrepreneurial spirit, a few leading US Universities, supported by not-for-profits and venture capital. It’s an ecosystem that can take an idea and support it through to a sustainable business. That’s impressive.

MOOC myth 4: Vacuous pedagogy

Vacuous compared to what? Three lectures a week and cursory feedback on essays that can take weeks to get back. Let’s not pretend that all is well with pedagogy in higher education (HE). On presentation, interaction, peer-to-peer assessment, use of social media, assignments, adaptive learning and meet-ups, MOOCs are streaking ahead. I’ve taken MOOCs that area far superior to my college courses. Note that this is just after a year or so, remember the pedagogy we see in higher education has had 1000 years to develop. MOOCs have forced institutions to rethink pedagogy in just a year or so.

MOOC myth 5: Poor assessment

Let’s face it, higher education accreditation is odd. You get a two numbers with a dot between them. What use is that? We need far more innovation on what we assess, when we assess and how we assess. MOOCs are starting to give us real answers. First, MOOCs are NOT, fundamentally, about summative assessment (that is, tests and exams). It is clear than huge numbers of learners don’t care a bit about accreditation (see 6 MOOC data from Edinburgh University – only 33% are interested in accreditation). For them, and I’m one of them, it’s not a paper chase but a learning experience. 

Then there are plenty of options here: No certification, certificate of completion, certificate of mastery, certificates of distinction, university credits, proctored online and proctored test centers. This flurry of activity in MOOCs has produced summative assessment that takes us forward in our thinking:  different degrees of certification based on demand, offers anytime assessment, anywhere exams, network of test center exams. Education is thus funded by volume certification and pushes innovation in online testing. The future of assessment will be assessment when the learner wants, where they want and in the form they want, including online. MOOCs already offer these options.

MOOC myth 6: Can’t be monetized

MOOCs aren’t all about money but money does matter. In many ways MOOCs are a response to the ever-rising costs of higher education that has led to record levels of student debt and the worry that defaults may be on the horizon. ‘Monetization’ is the wrong term, as a MOOC is an activity that needs to be seen in terms of both costs and income over time, namely its impact on your profit & loss account (don’t imagine that HE doesn’t have this). Note also that an institution could position its financial goal as an investment, aim for break-even or go for profit. Monetization is not just about profits. 

Here’s 20 separate monetization (cost reduction and income) strategies:

Potential income lines from not-for-profits, government, private equity and private donations, direct charges such as  student fees, materials, certification, proctored online assessment, proctored offline assessment and summer schools,. Growth through more ‹ students learning at home, overseas students, parents, alumni, adjunct revenue from recruitment, qdvertising and sponsorship, growth through brand capital, reduced capital costs and reduced faculty costs. There’s money in MOOCs, there’s also vast savings.

MOOC myth 7: All about higher education

MOOCs have a past, a lively present and a significant future. First we must get away from the idea that online courses started with higher education and MOOCs. They’ve been around for a long time and are just as likely to have a direct and indirect influence in schools, further education and lifelong learning, than higher education alone. We can’t predict the future, but together with our children, we can create it.

Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Thomas Friedman NY Times

Some References:

See Donald Clark’s blog at:

Edinburgh Report on 6 MOOCs turns up 10 surprises (data and stats)
MOOCs: taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC
MOOCs: Who’s using MOOCs? 10 different target audiences
MOOCSs: 20 ways to monetise

MOOCs & Future of Degrees

Join the Discussion