Since 2012, which the New York Times called the “Year of the MOOC,” massive open online courses (MOOCs) have remained popular among consumers eager to develop new skills at a low (free) cost. They’ve also entered the corporate training space, with companies contracting with MOOC providers to provide online education to their employees.
As a result of their popularity, MOOC providers have attracted a great deal of funding, including Udacity’s $1 billion total valuation, Naspers’ $60 million investment in Udemy and Skillshare’s $12 million Series B funding round last year, and Coursera’s $64 million Series D funding round this June.
However, last month, Clarissa Shen, vice president of Udacity, told the Economic Times, “MOOCs are a failed product, at least for the goals we had set for ourselves. Our mission is to bring relevant education which advances people in careers and socio-economic activities, and MOOCs aren’t the way.” An Udacity spokesperson told Training Industry, “Given the low completion rates of [MOOCs], Udacity began offering its paid Nanodegree programs in late 2014, micro-credentials that connect learning to jobs.” Udacity partners with such companies as Google, Facebook, IBM, Nvidia, Mercedes Benz and AT&T to develop the programs, which include personalized services like coaching and career support, and reports a current enrollment of over 53,000 students.
Meanwhile, about 13 percent of Coursera’s staff have reportedly left, including the chief marketing and financial officers. The company told Recode “it is simply changing priorities to focus on degree courses and that it is performing well financially.”
Are Udacity and Coursera’s changing priorities reflections that the MOOC is dead? As early as 2013, Doug Harward, CEO of Training Industry, Inc., wrote that “the current business model [would] need to change in order for MOOCs to be sustainable.”
Another problem is the low completion rate; only about 5 to 10 percent of learners complete MOOC courses. Andrius Putna, a software engineer, believes the reason for low completion rates is that MOOC students are typically not rewarded for their work. He launched BitDegree, an incentives-based e-learning platform, to try to solve that problem, at least for technical fields.
BitDegree uses game-based learning to teach technical skills and rewards learners for course completion with tokens that can be exchanged for online services, other cryptocurrencies or real currency, according to Putna. It uses the Ethereum platform, an open-source platform that uses encrypted blockchain to store, transfer and manage digital currency.
BitDegree boasts “some of the world’s leading higher education institutions and businesses” as collaborators and Jeff Burton (co-founder of Electronic Arts) as an advisor. Its website reports a planned initial coin offering (ICO) next month.
Perhaps the solution to maximizing MOOCs’ effectiveness is a combination of corporate training offerings and learner incentives. Coursera and CreativeLive announced new programs for corporate customers this year, and Coursera offers “verified certificates” that students can pay for upon completion of a course. EdSurge recently reported that MIT’s MOOC programs have recently begun focusing on professional audiences and offers a new certificate-based “Digital Plus Program,” available for a cost to companies and organizations. To earn a certificate, students must complete four courses. The first two certificate programs are on “strategic leadership and innovation” and “leading in the transformative era.”
Like Udacity, edX is now offering micro-degree programs through its MicroMasters program in in-demand topics like leadership, marketing, cybersecurity, analytics and data science, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, told U.S. News last year that completion rates are “much higher when students pay.”
A survey released by Randstad US last month found that “while over 80 percent of [U.S.] employees feel they have a responsibility to upskill,” almost 40 percent report that their organizations don’t pay for upskilling. Moreover, economists have found that the Great Recession caused “drastic” changes in the skills employers are looking for in their workers. Is the MOOC dead? One could argue that we can’t afford for it to be. It just needs some restructuring to stay alive.