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MOOCs on the Move: The Evolution of Massive Open Online Courses

  • January 16, 2017|
  • 1 year ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solution Architect

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access. MOOCs are not the buzzword they were a few years ago, and some have concluded that they are fading. The fact is they, like all areas of ed tech, are simply in metamorphosis. This first installment of a three-part series on MOOCs will explore the current drivers and players and show why many educators are taking them seriously.

Record Numbers, Record Funding

The hype is real. Record numbers of users and funding came for MOOCs in 2015, with more new students enrolling than in the previous three years combined. Total enrollment has soared beyond 35 million or double what it was just one year ago. By some estimates, MOOCs will reach $1.5 billion in earnings in 2016 and $8.5 billion by 2020. In addition, eager investors have pumped more than $430 million last year to the three market leaders.

MOOCs have shown particular growth among universities. The number of universities offering courses via MOOC platforms increased by more than 25 percent in 2015. There are now more than 4,000 MOOCs offered by more than 500 universities worldwide.

The MOOC Lineup

The mix of leading providers continues to evolve. Coursera is still far and away leading the pack, onboarding and serving half of MOOC users worldwide. EdX is a distant second, but the nonprofit organization locked down some key deals in 2015, and it is not going away anytime soon. If anything, edX is well-positioned for growth. The United Kingdom’s FutureLearn has emerged as the strongest newcomer.

The Changing MOOC Price Tag

In 2015, MOOCs found a business model—even among those that formed as nonprofits now are seeing the potential for profit and sustainability. Today, we see less freebies and more fee-based programs. The average cost of Coursera and edX certificates is now above $50, and Coursera is phasing in paywalls for some features.

As the platforms become more credible, these courses are also counting for credit. Udacity’s master’s degree in computer science at Georgia Tech, a partnership between the university and AT&T, is the gold standard of the pay-for-credit model. Students are expected to complete two courses per term for five terms. The total cost of the program is about $6,600. Other options are swiftly developing, such as Coursera’s University of Illinois “iMBA.”

Nonprofit edX is pivoting to offering many more MOOCs for-credit and minimal pay through initiatives with universities. These include the Global Freshman Academy offered with Arizona State University and the partial master’s degree in supply chain management offered through Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Universities Subscribe to Multiple Platforms

Despite the cost, universities have begun to cover their bases by deploying multiple MOOC platforms. This is raising some eyebrows given the six- and sometimes seven-figure investment to stand up a platform. Universities are double-subscribing because different platforms offer different strengths and weaknesses, and higher ed has recognized that these differences can be critical to a course’s success.

The platforms are now competing for clients, even poaching from each other. For example, edX has recently recruited most of Coursera’s earliest partners, including University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Purdue University. Other platforms will no doubt begin marketing to edX clients.

Gaining Mainstream Acceptance

Broader societal impacts are also beginning to coalesce. A MOOC on the Kennedy family produced by the University of Virginia was nominated for an Emmy Award, pointing to broader acceptance of the medium.

A Harvard Business Review study last year found that “The overwhelming majority of people who complete MOOCs report career or educational benefits, and a substantial proportion report tangible benefits such as getting a new job, starting a business, or completing prerequisites for an academic program.”

Takeaway: Don’t believe the naysayers; MOOCs are white hot. While they may not represent the altruistic aspirations of some of the early proponents, the user base is expanding, and the money is starting to roll in with investor interest, capital injection, and revenue growth. In the next part of this series, I’ll explore new trends in MOOC development and delivery.


1. “EdX Stays Committed to Universities, Offering Credits for MOOCs” EdSurge. November 23, 2015.
2. “Double-Dipping with MOOCs” Inside Higher Ed. October 13, 2015.
3. “MOOC Enrollment Surpassed 35 Million in 2015” ICEF Monitor. January 5, 2016.
4. “Coursera Update: Striking a Balance with Start Dates and Deadlines” Coursera Blog. October 9, 2015.
5. “MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers” EdSurge. December 28, 2015.
6. “UVa MOOC Nominated for Emmy Award” Inside Higher Ed. June 3, 2015.
7. “A Review of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success Portfolio: Lessons from Five Years of Funding Digital Courseware” SRI International. October 2014.