Where MOOCs are now

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an interesting piece by Jeffrey Selingo on the current state of MOOCs (“Demystifying the MOOC“). It’s an easy read, and it hits on something that I’ve been thinking myself and hearing from people working in a variety of MOOC organizations around the Bay Area.

When MOOCs (massive open online courses) sprang up a few years ago, there was a lot of hype about where they would go and the effect that they would have on higher education. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on the proponents themselves — a lot of writers outside of the edtech space were definitely making bold predictions about how these new platforms would bring education to the entire world and force US colleges to “shape up” somehow.

The Udacity San Jose debacle then happened, and the anti-MOOC crowd seemed confident in predicting that the MOOC experiment was a failure. But that doesn’t seem either fair or remotely accurate, in late 2014.

An acquaintance I was speaking with recently who works in a MOOC organization compared the new technology to blogging about 12 years ago. At the time, there were grandiose claims that blogs would replace traditional media, while the reality consisted mostly of unread websites by unknown writers. The predictions about blogs seemed completely unhinged, and by and large, they haven’t come true. But blogs have developed into a powerful means of communication that includes both widely read sites by famous journalists and less known writers (like me). In the same way, MOOCs probably will never fulfill the hype of 2011, but they won’t fade away, either. I expect that MOOCs will have a lasting and powerful impact on education, but in ways that no one can accurately predict now.

Here are a few things I’ve heard from people working in the MOOC space:

  • Remote education is nothing new. There have been correspondence courses forever. What’s changing is the volume of materials available and the ways that technology can put those materials to use. Instead of just watching videos alone, students can now collaborate with potentially large groups of students working across the country or abroad.
  • Market penetration is still tiny. Those of use who get excited about edtech are watching MOOCs closely, and Selingo’s piece addresses the ups and downs we’ve seen in MOOC news in the past few years. But out in the real world, most people have never heard of Udacity, Coursera, edX, or NovoEd. We’ll see the real effects of MOOCs when ordinary students and companies start to investigating them as a way to fill in “gaps” in their education or develop marketable skills.

As excited as I get about MOOCs, I’m also reluctant to make any predictions about how they’ll affect education. I am confident that there will be a strong impact, but I suspect that our views on MOOCs and education will be as flawed as predictions from the late 90s about the internet and business.