The future of MOOCs

MOOCs get a bad rap. Dismissed as prescriptive, or teacher-centric, or unsocial, or something else, it’s like a badge of honour to espouse why you dislike MOOCs.

Despite their pedagogical flaws, however, MOOCs provide unprecedented access to quality content for millions of learners.

It’s all very well for Apple-owning, organic-buying professionals to cast aspersions, but consider the girl in Pakistan who’s too scared to set foot in a classroom. Consider the teenager in central Australia whose school has only one teacher. Consider the young woman in Indonesia who can’t afford college. Consider the boy in San Francisco whose maths teacher simply doesn’t teach very well.

Don’t all these people deserve a better education? And isn’t content sourced from some of the world’s best providers a giant leap in that direction?

Sure, the pedagogy may not be perfect, but the alternative is much worse.

A child using a laptop.

MOOC proponent George Siemens distinguishes between two types of MOOC: the xMOOC and the cMOOC.

The former is the subject of such disdain. Involving little more than knowledge transmission and perhaps a quiz at the end, the xMOOC is widely seen as replicating old-fashioned lectures and exams.

In contrast, the latter leverages the connectedness of the participants. Seeded with content, the cMOOC empowers – read “expects” – the learner to discuss, debate, discover, share and co-create new knowledge with his or her fellow learners.

The cMOOC’s participant is active whereas the xMOOC’s participant is passive. As Siemens puts it, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Despite Siemens’ evangelism though, I don’t think the cMOOC is necessarily better than the xMOOC. (I’ll explain later.) Love them or loathe them, xMOOC or cMOOC, the fact remains: MOOCs have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Moreover, I submit they are yet to wreak their full vengeance on the education industry. When I look into my crystal ball, I foresee that MOOCs will rock our world, and they will do so in 15 ways…

1. Universities will finally accept they are service providers.

As the latest edition of Educause Review indicates, universities are fee-for-service businesses. That means they are subjected to market forces such as competition.

MOOCs beg the question: If I can study at Stanford University for free, why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to study at your dinky university and subject myself to your arcane rules?

2. The vast majority of students will be overseas.

Countries that currently attract foreign students to their shores will need to brace for the impact on their local economies, as an ever-increasing proportion of students choose to gain an international education without leaving their home country.

3. The pecking order will be reshuffled.

While the world’s most prestigious institutions will enjoy a windfall of new students, those that rely more on age than ability will ultimately fail as the target audience realises how pedestrian they are.

Conversely, some of the smaller, younger institutions will emerge from the shadows as the world sees how good they really are.

4. Research will become a competitive advantage.

There’s nowhere to hide on the global stage, and cutting-edge expertise will be one of the few aspects that a university will have to distinguish itself from the others.

No more lazy professors, no more specious journal articles. Faculty who don’t generate a flow of new knowledge for their students will have their tenure terminated.

5. Universities will flip their classrooms.

Bricks’n’mortar establishments will become expensive relics unless their owners redeploy them. One way to do that is to leverage MOOCs for content delivery and provide value-added instruction (discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc) to local students – who of course will pay a premium for the privilege.

Studying on campus will become a status symbol.

6. The role of the teacher will evolve.

There’s no point rehashing the same lectures when the world’s best authorities have already recorded them and offered them to the world as OERs. It’s how the teacher uses that content to support learning that will make the difference.

7. The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched.

While MOOCs typically comprise video clips and perhaps a quiz, they will inevitably include more instructional devices to assist distance learning (and remain competitive).

Over time, content providers will supplement their core offerings with live webinars, interactive exercises, discussion forums, wikis, social networks etc. Some may even organise real-life meetups at selected sites around the world.

8. Content providers will charge for assessment.

A certificate of completion is good; an official grade is better.

Assessment is one of the ways universities will monetise their MOOCs, and edX is already going one step further by offering proctored exams.

9. Universities will offer credits for MOOCs.

Again, this is already being considered by the American Council on Education.

Of course, a certificate of completion won’t suffice. Ka ching!

10. Online cheating will mushroom.

An ever-present thorn in the side of online education, cheating will be almost impossible to prevent in the MOOC space. But surely we can do better than onsite exams?

11. Academic inflation will skyrocket.

Every man and his dog will have a ream of courses listed on his CV. Employers will consider certificates of completion meaningless, while maintaining a reserved suspicion over assessment scores.

Outcomes-based activities that demonstrate the applicant’s knowledge and skills will become a component of best-practice recruitment.

12. Offshoring will become the rule, not the exception.

Deloitte’s global CLO, Nick van Dam, told me that American firms are using MOOCs to upskill accountants based in India on US accounting practices.

Dental, anyone?

13. MOOCs will target the corporate sector.

Current MOOCs are heavily geared towards school and college audiences. Over time, an increasing number of narrow, specific topics that link to corporate competencies will emerge.

Content providers will wag the long tail.

14. The corporate sector will embrace xMOOCs.

Learners in the workplace are time poor. They don’t have the luxury to explore, discover, and “make sense of the chaos”. They need the knowledge now and they are happy for the expert to transmit it to them.

15. An xcMOOC hybrid will emerge as the third variant.

Sooner or later, the powers that be will remember that an instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise.

Hence, the MOOC of the future may resemble an xMOOC in its early stages, and morph into a cMOOC in its later stages.

42 thoughts on “The future of MOOCs

  1. Much good common sense here. 15 in particular seems a good bet. I’d add that the hybrid (and much improved) MOOC of the future is likely to provide several or even many parallel learning paths to suit different aspirations, educational backgrounds etc – something a traditional course could never do really effectively.
    Gordon Lockhart

  2. @plerudulier Cheers!

    @gbl55 Good point, Gordon. That would make the MOOC relevant to a much broader audience.

  3. Excellent article Ryan. I’m seeing #5 and #15 coming into play in our current MOOC development at OSU. I think a lot of schools (college, K-12, and even corporate) will utilize MOOCs as they’d normally use textbooks and other course material… flipped classrooms will soon be the norm, because it would be unnatural for it not to be that way. Exciting times in h̶i̶g̶h̶e̶r̶ global education right now.

  4. Thanks Tom.

    I love the idea of using MOOCs as you would normally use textbooks and other course material. I wonder what the book publishers think about that? If they were clever, they’d start getting into the MOOC market.

  5. Very good post that creates a lot of thoughts. The Universities will have to adopt as well as business education companies.
    Today are already some of the large ICT companies giving there employees online education för all mandatory courses.

  6. Thanks Don, and I think your freemium model is inevitable. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. This article seems to implicitly point to English speaking countries as those who will dominate the MOOC environment for the foreseeable future.

  8. You should check the first massive initiative in spanish called WEDUBOX. It´s based in Udacity interface and in Coursera Courses:

    Here are some interesting videos from wedubox:

    What is Wedubox:

    Finance MOOC:

    How to create videos better than Coursera;

    Wedubox is for professors what Amazon is for publishers. Professors earn royalties. Here is the register link:

    Best Regards

  9. Thanks for the heads-up, Horacio. I think Spanish is the obvious non-English speaking market, along with Mandarin of course!

  10. Thanks for this article on the fast-changing trend around MOOCs! We’d love to have your readers’ opinions about the role and impact of MOOCs INSIDE of organizations and their employee learning programs. Please complete our short poll on this topic and we’ll be sharing the responses via an article in HR Executive. Thanks very much!

    — Steve Dahlberg, Future Workplace

  11. First mistake of academic writing: use undefined jargon. The main topic of this article MOOC, is never defined. At least identify the abbreviation once in the opening so that the interested but previously uninformed reader is clued in. Yes, I know, “that’s what Google is for”, but that should not be necessary.

  12. My apologies Laurel. I was targeting a specific audience with this post, and they have been inundated with MOOC-related content throughout the year. They know only too well what a MOOC is!

    Can you please advise me of your professional background (role, industry, sector etc) so that I can better understand my readership and word my posts accordingly?

    @Anonymous – Can you please do the same?

  13. Doing the poll myself and also sharing it on social media. I hope you get a good response.

  14. This article is EXCELLENT. I just wish ALL university academics would read it and UNDERSTAND its impact… But then again, it is THEIR loss if they don’t.
    Roz Hussin
    (currently an Instructional Design Technology Specialist, previously a tenured faculty and practicing Architect)

  15. Number 10 won’t be an issue if we change the paradigm around learning – if the expectation that gaining knowledge and expertise is the ultimate goal, cheating won’t be an issue – we’d have to re-define the process of assessing knowledge and skills acquisition – strides already made in more advanced corporate and adult education environments, through peer review, social network monitoring, and alternative assessment/evaluation practices.

  16. Thanks Chip, and yes, assessment is such a hot topic. I recognise it’s important to assess learners in particular circumstances, but I also appreciate *how* we assess them is ultimately what matters.

  17. You may like to refer to my post “MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles” at

    My responses to this post.

    Preample (what about the disadvantaged?). This is a reason for *wanting* MOOCs to work, not a reason why they *do*. My argument is that MOOCs are premature – they *will* work when we have capable, interactive software in place. At the moment, we don’t. MOOC platforms might invest their $15 in developing these new

    digital pedagogies, but the money will run out, especially as innovation is inevitably a hit-and-miss business and much of it will be wasted. What they need is a supply chain.

    In response to your points.

    1. “Why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars [to go to university]?”Because what MOOCs offer is in no way equivalent to a university education.

    2. “The vast majority of students will be overseas”. When the online pedagogy is sorted, maybe, but for serious education I suspect that they will still need local tuition.

    3. “The pecking order will be reshuffled”. Maybe – but the brand advantage gives the old universities a head start – and that will count for a lot. Coursera and Udacity are making the news because they are the first on the block – but what do they have that cannot be replicated. Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge have brands that are unique. And what the university will be providing is (a) the tuition element, and (b) the brand. On the whole, I side with the Economist, (

    orming-higher-education-creating-new-opportunities-best) not you on this.

    4. Agreed – competition will hot up and though I think top universities will have a distinct market advantage, they will have to keep peddling.

    5. “Studying on campus will become a status symbol”. Maybe – but face-to-face contact (not necessarily on campus) is *much* more than a status symbol. But I agree that classrooms will be flipped. Maybe the richer foreign students will fly in for quarterly “summer” schools (or to your distributed “real-life meetups”).

    6. “The role of the teacher will evolve”. Completely agree. The essence of the teacher should be as conversational

    (i.e. responsive) tutor.

    7. “The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched”. Agreed – I think our main difference is that I see this “pedagogical

    enrichment” as (a) a necessary prerequisite for this getting off the ground, and (b) requiring market innovation – not something that the universities or even MOOC platforms can do for themselves.

    8. Agreed – also at the distributed centres.

    9. Also agreed. We need to develop proper data standards that can recognise

    credit (and validate its worth – i.e. if institution x says tht student y is

    good at z – and this proves to be untrue – then the value of accreditations by

    institution x is devalued on the “social network”.

    10. “Online cheating will mushroom”. Low-stkes solutions will emerge from this – but some supervised exams will still be required to validate the results of e-tests. An illustration of why we should not think of going wholly online, but instead looking for blended options.

    11. “Academic inflation will skyrocket”. Non-validated certificates (which includes Mozilla badges) will lack any credibility, so it won’t be so much a case of inflation, as of printing toilet paper. Not only is completion insufficient, but the predictive value of accreditation will be validated by learning analytics systems. That will be what will create real credibility in the certification business.

    12. Offshoring in the UK is in retreat, owing to lack of personal contact / cultural misunderstandings (which is even more important for education than for questioning your electricity bill). Some more impersonal may be offshored.

    13. Agreed corporate sector will gain from better online training. I should say that they already do and the whole kerfuffal over MOOCs was based on the claim that they were going to revolutionise HE.

    14. Ditto.

    15. “An instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise”. I don’t think it always works this way: often the more experienced learner just wants to acquire a bit of sector-specific knowledge and is happy with an expositive approach. The key is discover how to handle the activity-based approach (this is currently the missing piece), after which you will be able to deliver whatever blend of the two (exposition and activity) that is appropriate.

    I am cross-posting to my own blog (link at the top).


  18. Thanks Crispin, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I’m now going to read “MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles”. Cheers!

  19. Thank you Ryan – I’m looking forward to your thoughts on my piece. In the meantime, I apologize for the horrendously sloppy proof-reading of my comment. I think I had to get out of the door for something!

  20. No worries at all, Crispin. I promise to add a comment to your blog over the coming days.

  21. I’m currently a student enrolled at Roosevelt University’s Masters in Training and Development program. Without the online line courses I would not of been able to finish my degree due to an unplanned move half way though my degree. I’ve been on both ends of corporate training; delivering and receiving and I couldn’t agree more with point #14, employees are “time poor”. MOOCs are sometimes the only real good option to get them the information they need. Great article.

  22. Excellent article ,Ryan!
    What I believe is,the educational institutes are increasingly realizing that classroom delivery is not necessarily the most effective pedagogy for students’ development; neither is delivering the training in exactly the same way via a webinar or converting the PowerPoint slides into an online module.Instead, educators are now considering making their offerings “MOOC like” by creating an online space in which the content can be consumed and discussed by the students over the course of several weeks. This approach reduces the burden of managing classroom sessions (timetables, room bookings, flights, accommodation), and frees up face-to-face time for value added activities such as such as storytelling, Q&A and role plays. It also suggest mimicking the flexibility of a MOOC, whereby signing up to the course, participating in it and even completing it is optional but also an effective feature in the advancement of education system.

    The world of MOOCs is moving quickly – soon, all of us will be moving from experiments to applying what we’ve learned to problems in higher education. In investigations of MOOCs over the past time, by researchers they are convinced that the areas which are needed to address aren’t with technology or even basic pedagogy, but in matching the MOOC model to the most pressing needs that universities need to address for students and creating the institutional momentum to create the institutional partnerships to solve those problems.
    I am a researcher at and we are working on a similar study.Would love to read more from you. Thanks

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