The Evolution of MOOC’s

When I first heard about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), it seemed to be an obvious way to upgrade higher education in a digital world. The possibilities were limitless – simply remove the cost and location barriers and watch what happens when you open the doors to anyone with an internet connection.

Depending on whether you believe information wants to be free or not, ‘liberating’ valuable knowledge that’s been cultivated thoughtfully across the years in institutions around the world sounds like a move that can’t be anything other than positive.

As we increasingly expect to find the answer to every question on the web, the decision facing many students about whether or not it is sensible to start a career under a mountain of debt is a far harder one these days – particularly when the current generation can now expect to earn less than their parents ever did. Add to that the fact that people will change jobs more frequently in the future and suddenly some degrees invariably starts to command less value than they did in days gone by.

So I found it interesting to read an article in MIT’s Technology Review this week that argues that MOOC’s are failing to deliver on the promise of revolution that they’d originally promised.

For example, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun stated only a couple of years ago that he believed that only 10 institutions would be responsible for delivering higher eduction in 50 years’ time. But interestingly, he’s now changed Udacity’s direction by choosing to focus on corporate training as opposed to educating the masses.

Critics often point to the fact that the courses have extremely high drop-out rates and question whether the resulting certification is worth it. It’s clear that MOOC’s are experiencing growing pains but the evidence shows that the overall concept itself remains successful (just perhaps in a sightly different way).

The drop-out rate is often no more than a symptom of the fact that with such low barriers to entry lets people window shop in order to try out courses that they could never otherwise risk committing to. Furthermore, it’s unarguable that this type of education is far more flexible. So whilst those who planned to disrupt higher education may not have seen the results that they hoped for, the data is clear that it’s enabled people from a far wider age range than the classic university demographic to start learning.

For example, Coursera‘s data shows that 85% of sign-ups come from those outside university age. So it’s clearly appealing to people who are looking to ‘skill up’ in this modern age. This is both unsurprising and vital given just how many new important subjects exist today that were unheard of only a few years ago when many of the current students were perhaps finishing their formal education (mobile, big data and digital marketing, to name but three). On top of that, Udacity is now focusing on teaching teachers. Logically, helping to distribute knowledge and updates amongst those responsible for teaching others is far more likely to have a valuable multiplier effect.

It’ll be interesting to see where the model goes from here. There are different business models out there but the optimal organisational structure for delivering MOOC’s hasn’t yet been settled upon. We also should remember that technology has not yet started incorporating AI to any serious extent yet. This is an inevitability and perhaps this will be the tipping point. Combine the open access with the sort of adaptive learning that I’ve blogged about before, and you could have something that’s hugely powerful. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend Charles Hoskinson’s Udemy course (‘Bitcoin or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Crypto‘) if you’re looking for something to get stuck into for free.