Laptop with video call on table next to mug

In 2008, massive, open, online courses burst onto the higher education landscape when two Canadian researchers launched a course on the theory of connectivism that enrolled 25 students on the campus of the University of Manitoba and another 2,300 learners worldwide online. 


The scalability of MOOCs became clear three years later, when a team of professors at Stanford offered a free online course on artificial intelligence to 160,000 students across the globe. By 2012, three companies — Udacity, Coursera, and edX — were producing MOOCs, and educators began predicting that the online platforms would disrupt the future of higher education. 


Fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, MOOCs are now experiencing an unprecedented boom as millions of people have signed up for these free online courses. Since mid-March, more than 20 million learners have registered for a class with Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, a 360 percent increase from the same period last year. And edX, the next largest MOOC provider, has seen an uptick of 10 million new users since the pandemic began, more than twice the amount that joined in all of 2019. 


The rise in popularity of MOOCs comes as the model in this online space has shifted to credit-bearing courses and degrees, with at least 50 MOOC-based degrees now offered by universities globally. As more students and adult learners turn to MOOCs, the online courses and degrees are accelerating the adoption of online learning in higher education. 


“The pandemic has been transformative for many institutions,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield, who organized a MOOC in 2011. “They have awakened to online learning. It could take years to tame a mutating virus, all the while universities will have to cope with periodic campus outbreaks. Online learning will become a mainstay of learning delivery among the institutions that survive.” 


MOOCS Begin Offering Degree Programs 


While the vast majority of MOOC degrees are master’s programs, the newest trend in this online space is the development of bachelor’s degrees. This fall, the University of North Texas in Denton launched the first MOOC-based bachelor’s degree in the United States. Offered through Coursera, the bachelor of applied arts and sciences program is aimed at working adults who already have some college education and course credit.  


“There are 36 million people in the U.S. who have started college but haven’t finished a degree,” said Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation at UNT. “That’s a terrible number, and my mission is anything that we can do to reverse that trend is a good idea, especially if we can lower the cost of the typical bachelor’s degree.” 


To enroll in the program, students need at least 45 credit hours and will earn the rest through UNT. The cost of the online degree is $330 per credit hour, compared to $470 per credit hour for UNT’s on-campus undergraduate degrees. 


Because bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits to complete, MOOCs have primarily focused on master’s degrees, targeting working adults who cannot leave their jobs to enroll in an on-campus graduate program. What makes these programs different from typical online degrees is that the courses typically enroll larger numbers of students, and they are stackable. 


At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a MOOC-based iMBA launched in 2016 has become so popular that the university’s Gies College of Business cancelled its full- and part-time residential MBA program last year. One of the main attractions of the iMBA is the cost: the total tuition bill is $22,000, compared to $40,000 to $60,000 for the residential MBA.  


“The online program has become so vast and diverse — we have students from all over the world who get together in the platform,” says Norma Scagnoli, senior director of eLearning at the Gies College of Business. “It was so successful that the college decided to put all its energy in the online MBA and develop more specialized master’s programs face-to-face.” 


Courses in the program, which is offered through Coursera, typically enroll about 1,000 students. The retention rate has averaged 91 percent, reflecting efforts to engage students through live sessions with professors and the use of course assistants — at a ratio of one for every 30 students. 


Flexible Online Options 


Beyond bringing working adults into the fold of graduate education, MOOC-based degrees are also changing the demographic balance of students in master’s degree programs, particularly in STEM fields.  


When Georgia Institute of Technology began offering online master’s programs in computer science, analytics, and cyber security, the proportion of American citizens enrolled in the program shifted from 20 to 25 percent in the on-campus programs to 75 to 80 percent in the MOOC-based degree. A 2018 analysis of the online program in computer science showed that the typical applicant was a 34-year-old midcareer American, while the typical applicant to the residential program was a 24-year-old recent graduate from India. 


While many international students do stay in the U.S. after graduating and contribute to the economy, the flexibility of an online degree has made it easier for American students to enroll in the master’s programs, said Nelson Baker, dean of professional education at Georgia Tech. The price of the three master’s programs is another draw: each cost less than $10,000, compared to $35,000 for the residential program. 


“In today’s environment working individuals have all kinds of barriers to advancement in their careers and they physically cannot get to a college university campus because of either distance, or other commitments, or cost,” said Baker, past president of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). “So this has become a great avenue to people who are trying to advance their careers to be able to do so at a high-quality program at a very low cost to participate.” 


Launched in 2013 through the MOOC provider Udacity, Georgia Tech’s computer science master’s program is by far the largest, enrolling 10,000 students. The other two programs, run by MOOC provider edX, are newer: the analytics degree started in 2017 and has 3,500 students, while cyber security started in 2019 and has 700.  


Although MOOCs have been plagued by low completion rates, Georgia Tech uses a cutting-edge tactic to keep students engaged in online courses: a virtual teaching assistant dubbed Jill Watson, who answers students’ questions in discussion forums. In the device’s first semester in 2016, students taking an online artificial intelligence class could not tell that Watson was not a person. 

“We’re starting to see how it scales to other classes,” Baker said. “If this really does catch on, is this something that students want more of?” 


Evaluating the Effectiveness 


Despite the innovative strategies used to reach students in MOOC-based degrees, critics say that stand-alone MOOC courses still have high dropout rates.  A study published in Science in 2019 showed that 3.13 percent of participants who took a MOOC at Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology completed their courses in 2017-18, down from nearly 6 percent in 2014-15, according to the research conducted at MIT.  


One explanation is that MOOCs may not be designed in the most effective way to engage adult learners. Research on a theory of adult learning known as andragogy shows that the key factor in engaging older learners is the respect for and use of the student’s life experience, said Karen Gross, the former president of Southern Vermont College.  


“That is missing in MOOCs because you have no idea, whether you have 500 students or 5,000 students, who they are and what their life experience are. You have no way to engage with them or share experiences on issues that have been raised,” said Gross, a continuing education instructor in the Graduate School of Social Work at Rutgers University. 


Yet many MOOC advocates say that completing a course is not the ultimate goal. Take ModPo, one of the first humanities MOOCs that has been taught by Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, since 2012. This year, more than 50,000 people worldwide are enrolled in the introductory course, offered through Coursera, on modern and contemporary U.S. poetry. Students in the course can earn a certificate of completion if they take the quizzes and write four required essays. 


But few students in the course complete the multiple-choice quizzes, which Filreis describes as “irrelevant” for a poetry course. “ModPo isn’t about completion as it is typically defined for MOOCs,” he said. “The people are there to read poems and see what others say about them. It’s a place where there are smart, kind people from around the world talking about poetry.” 


Besides social media groups, discussion forums, and live weekly office hours, ModPo brings together its vast roster of students by holding meetups in major cities every fall. Groups in Los Angeles, Chicago and Paris are planning socially distant outdoor meetups this year, but otherwise the gatherings are virtual. 


Adding real-time meetings for online learners after the pandemic ends may lead to new models for MOOC-based education, which could involve universities providing meeting spaces in cities across the globe for students to gather and hold discussion groups. 


“Rather than building a whole campus, could we just take a space in a shopping mall and allow these meetings to take place?” Baker asks. “The whole idea of creating these programs at-scale has challenged us to think about the role of the university in tomorrow’s economy.” 


Sherrie Negrea ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in higher education. She has written for publications and websites at Cornell, Rutgers, and Ithaca College, and was previously a newspaper reporter for 16 years.