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MOOCs: Changes and Challenges

  • January 30, 2017|
  • 1 year ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

Compliance and Accessibility

Compliance and accessibility has presented a challenge for MOOCs as they expand. While MOOCs lagged in these areas at first, they are beginning to become more accessible after some prodding.

In 2015, for example, the National Association of the Deaf sued Harvard and MIT, the founders of edX, for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide close captioning in their MOOCs, among other claims. EdX settled with the U.S. Department of Justice out of court and promised to make its website, learning management system, and hardware fully accessible to those with disabilities within 18 months. It’s unclear whether other platforms and providers will follow, though that’s a good assumption.

Credibility and Retention

Credibility and student retention through full course completion remain serious challenges. Regarding the former, schools with the current largest total MOOC enrollments are the University of Phoenix, Liberty University, Ashford University, Kaplan, American Public University, Grand Canyon University, Walden University, DeVry University, Western Governors University and Everest College. With the University of Florida the only prominently recognizable school in the top 30, online universities are struggling to gain brand recognition.

Student retention reflects this issue. A Harvard Business Review study noted that just 4 percent of Coursera users who watch at least one lecture eventually complete the course. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal noted that only 20 of 380 students enrolled in a much-hyped Georgia Tech master’s MOOC had graduated to date.

Accountability and Cheating

A new Harvard-MIT study reveals rising levels of cheating during MOOCs. The study also found that students are developing new techniques to do so on an ongoing basis. While this presents a huge problem for accountability and fairness, providers have not yet said how they or educators should address this challenge. MOOCs have begun to offer solutions in the meantime. For example, Coursera is implementing keystroke pattern detection as a way to prevent cheating.

Mixed Outcomes and Reviews

Outcomes remain hazy and varied. Several recent studies seem to indicate that despite overwhelmingly positive student reviews, online learning via MOOCs may not take hold in the long term. One DeVry study found that MOOCs and online coursework can reduce learning outcomes, while research by Stanford found it may only keep them steady without improvement.

A Gates Foundation-funded investigation notably concluded that “online courses in which students’ dominant role was solving problems or answering questions had more positive effects than those where most of the students’ time was spent reading text or listening to lecture videos.” Therefore, more interactive MOOCs measure up differently than lecture-based MOOCs.

Costs and Financial Aid

Financial aid is also a new challenge for students hoping to obtain degrees via MOOCs and online courses. It’s very slowly beginning to develop. To be fair, part of this lag is because the pay-for-credit model MOOC is relatively new in its adoption.

There is a bit of progress, however. Last fall, the Texas State University System, an eight-campus public system distinct from the 14-campus University of Texas System, created a “Freshman Year for Free” program. Students can study one full year via the edX MOOC and pay only for the post-course third-party evaluation. This model is pretty leading edge, as no significant revenue appears to accrue to the school during year one. The benefit is capturing the yield and retention for three more years of tuition, so it’s a calculated gamble.

Access and Equity

Beyond financial aid, access and equity are only just beginning to be addressed. A Harvard Business Review survey of MOOC users last year found that approximately 80 percent of those viewing MOOCs already hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 60 percent are already employed full time. In other words, MOOCs mostly do not educate the uneducated—they simply enhance the skill set or life experience of those who are already succeeding. An MIT study similarly found that affluent students are more likely to complete their MOOCs.

To help address this, edX launched the ACE Alternative Credit Project initiative last fall for nontraditional learners who wish to obtain or complete degrees. General education MOOC courses transfer credits directly to participating institutions in the project. There’s growing talk too from Bill Gates and others about creating new MOOC content and platforms specially for developing nations, women, and other underserved populations, but there is not much action yet on these fronts.

Partnerships and Specialized Content

Finally, where does the business model go from here? Think corporate ties, increased cash flow, and plenty of third parties jumping into the act with their own MOOCs in 2016.

The for-pay, for-credit model will continue to accelerate. Coursera and Udacity have begun partnering with big firms like AT&T and Google to package specialized content, for example.

Other partnerships are also in the works. Alibaba will launch a MOOC platform in tandem with a Chinese university, Starbucks will expand its online education experiment with Arizona State, and The History Channel will team up with the University of Oklahoma to create an online history course. Pearson has also begun crafting high-level deals to do evaluation and testing within MOOCs for top providers.

Take Away: MOOCs are almost certainly going to be part of the learning and ed tech landscapes for some time to come. That being said, the road ahead is not without challenges. Continued scale and new commercial partnerships seem to be the latest shifts poised to deliver yet more change to this already rapidly evolving technology-based education channel.


1.“5 Biggest MOOC Trends of 2015” Class Central. December 27, 2015.
2. “Top Ed Tech Trends of 2015: Beyond the MOOC” Hack Education. December 14, 2015.
3. “Study Identifies New Cheating Method in MOOCs” MIT News. August 24, 2015.
4. “Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why” Harvard Business Review. September 22, 2015.
5. “MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers” EdSurge. December 28, 2015.
6. “New MIT Study Finds Affluent Students More Likely to Complete MOOCs” EdSurge. December 29, 2015.
7. “Fall 2013 IPEDS Data: Top 30 Largest Online Enrollments Per Institution” e-Literate. January 5, 2015.
8. “A Review of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success Portfolio: Lessons from Five Years of Funding Digital Courseware (Full Report)” SRI International. October 2014.
9. “edX Disability Lawsuit in Deal with DOJ” EdSurge. April 6, 2015.
10. “TSUS Joins ‘Freshman Year for Free’ Program” The Texas State University System. September 10, 2015.
11. “Online Degree Hits Learning Curve” The Wall Street Journal. December 13, 2015.