MOOCs 2.0 and the Future of Higher Education

When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) first appeared on the education scene in 2011, the hype was vigorous and instant. The concept of anyone being able to take courses from elite universities, taught by some of the best professors in the world, for free, was going to revolutionize education. Some even spoke seriously about the death of the traditional college degree.

As with so many new ideas, once the novelty wore off, reality set in. The college degree is still alive and well, and MOOCs have been under scrutiny for their completion rates.

What MOOCs did achieve, however, is giving legitimacy to online learning. By pioneering MOOCs, some of the biggest names in higher ed lent the powerful weight of their brand to online learning and indicated that they believed it was a valid modality.

The elephant in the room is that these schools haven’t figured out the business model of MOOCs. While Coursera and EdX are giving away some credits, most MOOCs remain free and non-credit granting. So how, then, will MOOCs impact the future of education? Welcome to the world of MOOC 2.0.

MOOCs by the Numbers

First, how popular are MOOCs, really? As it turns out, their popularity is significant and growing. In 2015, more than 35 million students signed up for at least one MOOC, and approximately 4,200 courses are offered worldwide. But while MOOCs are popular, they are not necessarily effective as a teaching tool; in 2014, the average completion rate was only 7 percent.

Other Alternative Credentials

One impact MOOCs have had, beyond simply educating students, is sparking innovations in education. Online education was, of course, the original disrupter. But MOOCs took that one step further. While MOOCs did not directly lead to the development of innovations such as competency-based education, badges, nanodegrees, or corporate partnerships, they did accelerate the innovation process.

What MOOCs Mean for Education

The real conundrum MOOCs face moving forward is balancing accreditation and credibility. MOOCs currently leverage the power of some heavy hitting brands in the education space as the primary selling point; people love thinking they’ve taken a class from an Ivy League school. But if these courses are just as good as the credit-granting courses, does that mean that the schools will eventually cease to exist? Why go to Harvard if you can just get the same education for free online? And, of course, for those companies that offer MOOCs, such as Coursera, how can they earn money? Coursera is really an aggregator of content from elite schools – the value comes from the brands they represent, not the courses they themselves produce. StraighterLine, which, according to Scott Jaschik, is a “MOOC-like substance,” started with great promise but didn’t get the traction that MOOCs themselves did, even though it offered some credit-bearing courses (if you count approval from ACE as credit) and has a modest cost. The lackluster performance is likely because consumers are interested in the brand recognition that comes from the elite institutions offering MOOCs, versus being interested in MOOCs as a modality, unaffiliated with a strong higher education brand.

The balance, I think, will come in reframing how we think about education. As a culture, we need to stop thinking of education as a “one and done” deal. Currently, you go to school, you earn a degree, your education is complete. This is true at both the undergraduate and graduate level – education is a discrete time period, and then time in the workforce is considered a separate time period. (There are exceptions for some professions that require continuing education to maintain licensure.)

To me, this kind of thinking is not only outdated, it is ineffective. The older I get, the more I realize there is always, always more to learn. And in our increasingly connected, fast-moving world, those skills that will be needed in a couple of years are not even being taught today. Ten years ago, for example, when I hired people to build websites, they didn’t even think about mobile designs. “Website” meant “on a desktop.” Now, when I hire for that same job, I need people who can design websites that work across devices, from phones to tablets to desktops.

But these skills will not necessarily require a four-year degree. Targeted, focused programs that teach specific things (for example, coding languages, digital marketing, or data analysis) can be done in less time than a long degree. Learning House’s coding bootcamp, The Software Guild, for example, can be completed in 12 weeks (if attending full time) or 9 months (if attending part time and online). Alternative credentials, such as MOOCs, can help fill the skills gap and improve students’ abilities to be lifelong learners.

Flexibility, too, is an important part of the MOOC experience. While the amount of knowledge in the world grows, the ability to build your own degree will help students create specific courses of study that can help them pursue their career goals. Alternative credentials, including MOOCs, will be an important part of this flexible college experience.

Not only will students enjoy flexibility, but corporations will as well. Increasingly, partnerships between industry and higher education are offering benefits to both. Companies get a happier, more educated workforce, and institutions get access to more students. MOOCs are a low-commitment, low-cost way for institutions to offer specific courses to industry partners. For example, all Walmart employees might have access to a basic supply chain MOOC. Those who succeed might then be considered for a management training program.

Internationally, I think MOOCs will have a more significant impact than in the United States. America’s higher education system is unique in the number of colleges it has and the options students can choose from. That kind of flexibility is not as prevalent internationally, and that’s where MOOCs can bring a benefit to those student populations.

While I recognize the benefits MOOCs and alternative credentials can bring, however, they will never replace the traditional degree. Delivery of that degree may change, but ultimately, a rigorous, intense course of study will always remain the gold standard for education. What MOOCs and alternative credentials can do, however, is enhance the education experience and ensure that, as a society, we are continuing to push the bounds of knowledge.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: