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Reading the MOOC Tea Leaves

The expansion of Massive Open Online Courses has seen significant changes in the way higher education is delivered and has raised many questions about how the industry’s landscape will continue to shift as they continue to spread into the market

The emerging open online environment is rapidly taking shape. Fueled by a combination of factors, the MOOC movement has gained enormous momentum led by elite universities, and unique relationships and affiliations, notably Coursera, edX, and Udacity. A whole host of other open initiatives are underway that promise to provide learning opportunities worldwide. The reality of millions of people signing up for higher learning opportunities is here today. The potential exists to significantly re-configure the way in which higher education is delivered, and all of this has taken place in a startlingly short period of time.

How did we get here in the first place?

It was a convergence of three broad movements that brought about the change. These three major societal factors came together to create the incentive to transform the delivery of higher education.

The first of these factors was the maturing of the Internet as a robust platform to support interactive, multi-media, engaging learning opportunities. Over the past 15 years, online learning has evolved from an early email-intensive enterprise to one with well-integrated technologies providing both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. With one-third of the world’s population and more than three-quarters of North American residents online, the Internet has become the medium of preference. [1]

The second movement was the deep and lingering recession that emerged in the global financial crisis of 2007 (which persists today). It is this economic downturn that has prompted so many people worldwide to seek advanced learning opportunities to re-frame their careers. It is also this downturn that has put higher education out of reach for many college-age youth in families where the parents have lost jobs or been forced into low-paying jobs to try to make ends meet. [2]

The third movement predates the global financial crisis, but certainly has been exacerbated by the economic downturn: the rate of increase in college tuition and fees has far exceeded the consumer price index. As the economy declined during the recession, the states pulled back on their support of public colleges and universities, resulting in those institutions raising tuition even higher. [3]

This combination of factors has given rise to MOOCs on a grand scale. Nearly 200 have been announced by the major providers so far with the potential to reach tens of millions of learners. At this point, completion rates are low and learning outcomes not fully vetted. Yet recent announcements from three very different sources give us a glimpse of the future.

Where do we seem to be going?

Google Director of Research (and co-teacher of the ground-breaking Artificial Intelligence MOOC with Sebastian Thrun), Peter Norvig, announced in September 2012 the release of an open source learning management system (LMS): Course Builder. Course Builder was used for Google’s first MOOC, “Power Searching with Google.” The LMS itself, however, was not nearly as important as Norvig’s assertion during the announcement that this was “an experimental early step for us in the world of online education… an indication of our future direction.”[4] The potential that Google, by far the largest Internet corporate leader, is planning to expand in the area of online learning may not be a surprise, but it is a powerful statement that the company will continue to expand in this area. Apple has not been left behind; their iTunes U re-design, which includes its new LMS, Course Manager, has the potential to leverage massive opportunities for their very large education base. [5]

Another announcement caught the attention of many observers of MOOCs. Just a week before Norvig’s announcement, an announcement came from Colorado State University that, after careful review, they would accept transfer credits for an Udacity MOOC. In order to receive three credit hours for the “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine,” students require a certificate of accomplishment from Udacity (free) and the successful completion of an exam administered by Pearson VUE ($89). This is the first MOOC to be accepted as transfer credit by an accredited American university. [6]

Yet a third announcement came in mid-September, this one from a less-likely source. Moody’s Investor Service, the company that assigns bond credit ratings and issues reports on a range of financial issues, issued a report titled “Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities.” In the report, Moody’s predicted that MOOCs will help larger and elite universities in cutting costs and in further building their brands, but will hurt local and regional colleges who may lose part of their student base to the larger universities. The Moody’s report also suggests that for-profit universities may stand to lose enrollments. [7]

These announcements point to the potential for a radically different higher education marketplace, disrupted by MOOCs. Classes with massive enrollment from a relatively small group of providers may dominate the market for many courses, and perhaps even degree programs. Colleges and universities may become brokers of credentials gathered from many sources, in many formats. The towering tuition barrier may topple for many motivated learners.

All of this is still in the works; the tea is still brewing. Given the rapidity of these developments, it may not be long before we can make a definitive reading on a vision of the future of the higher education marketplace.

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[1] Miniworlds Marketing Group. “Internet Users in the World; Distribution by World Regions – 2011.” December 21, 2011. Available from Internet World Stats, accessed October 1, 2012.

[2] Ibid

[3] White, Gregory and Angelova, Kamelia. “Is College Education The Next Bubble Set To Burst?” Business Insider July 19, 2010. Available from Business Insider, accessed October 1, 2012.

[4] Strange, Adario. “Google Unveils Open Source Online Education Software.” PC Magazine September 12, 2012. Available from PC Magazine, accessed October 1, 2012.,2817,2409589,00.asp

[5] Kim, Joshua. “How Big a Deal Is Apple’s iTunes U Course Manager?” Inside Higher Ed, August 23, 2012. Inside Higher Ed on the Web, accessed October 1, 2012.

[6] Mangan, Katherine. “A First for Udacity: a U.S. University Will Accept Transfer Credit for One of Its Courses.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 6, 2012. The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Web, accessed October 1, 2012.

[7] Azevedo, Alisha. “NOOC’s Could Hurt Smaller and For-Profit Colleges, Moody’s Report Says.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 12, 2012. The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Web, accessed October 1, 2012.

Ray Schroeder will be speaking on this topic at UPCEA Seminar on the Management of Online Programs, running from November 6-9 in New Orleans, LA. For more information on the presentation, please click here. Schroeder will also be speaking on the growth of mobile learning at the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning on October 10. For more information on this presentation, please click here.

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