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DEPARTMENTS: Emerging Technologies Center

What Has Happened to Massively Open Online Courses?

Skiba, Diane J.

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Nursing Education Perspectives: 9/10 2017 - Volume 38 - Issue 5 - p 291-292
doi: 10.1097/01.NEP.0000000000000222
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It is interview time at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, and I have been interviewing applicants for the spring 2018 class. One of my applicants took some massively open online courses (MOOCs) in preparation for graduate education with informatics as a possible specialty. Needless to say, I was impressed.

I first wrote about MOOCs in 2012. A year later, I reported on the continuing hype about MOOCs as a major disruptor in higher education (Skiba, 2012, 2013). Like most innovations, MOOCs passed through Gartner’s (2017) hype cycle, where the first stage was the innovation trigger, followed by the peak of inflated expectations. During that stage, there was a push in many universities to develop and offer MOOCs. But where are they now?

MOOCs fell into Gartner’s trough of disillusionment. With interest in creating MOOCs subsiding, some universities did not reap the benefits of offering the free online courses they developed. This has been a particularly hard result for public universities that sought to use this technology to ultimately increase their student enrollments. But some companies (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, and edX) have remained in business and continue to offer MOOCs to the masses. What is the reality in 2017?


Writing in an engineering publication in January, Ubell asks whether the MOOC pioneers got it wrong. He makes the case that the early pioneers thought they had invented something phenomenal since thousands of people were flocking to take free courses from prestigious professors. However, the basic format of a MOOC at that time consisted of video streaming lectures with multiple-choice questions, quizzes, and extremely large discussion groups. “They were big, but they did not break new ground in pedagogy.” Although the pioneers were offering courses to the masses, Ubell points out that many in the online learning community were using active learning to engage students with techniques such as peer-to-peer learning, discovery learning, interactive learning exercises, and virtual teamwork.

In his January article, Ubell (2017, January 16) notes the low rate of MOOC completion (7 percent to 12 percent). Citing Freeman and colleagues (2014), he reports on results from an Academy of Sciences meta-analysis that compared traditional lectures to active learning in science, technology, engineering, and math. “These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” Ubell concedes that “MOOCs have been wildly successful in giving millions of people all over the world access to a wide range of subjects presented by eminent scholars at the world’s elite schools. Some courses attract so many students that a 7 percent completion rate still translates into several thousand students finishing — greater than the total enrollment of many colleges.”

In a later article, Ubell (2017, April 12) speaks to how Coursera and edX have moved ahead with a winning formula for profitability and sustainability. On the basis of their models, he offers three key ingredients for repackaging MOOCs to generate revenue:

  • Ingredient 1: Bundle courses into targeted fields (e.g., nursing, public health, cybersecurity).
  • Ingredient 2: Apply college credit to course bundles for partial or full-degree plans. Ubell quotes from an interview with the CEO of edX, which offers MicroMasters: “Credit is the gold coin of education today.”
  • Ingredient 3: Provide discounted tuition prices to entice students to pay for learning from prestigious universities, while still offering free MOOCs for the masses.

Ubell provides two examples for Ingredient 3. With edX, a student can complete a MicroMaster of five courses and enter an accelerated, on-campus program with a substantial discount for tuition. Another example is the joint executive MBA program, iMBA, offered by Coursera in partnership with the University of Illinois. Tuition is a quarter of that of the university’s residential program.

An Online Course Report (2017) summarizes the state of the MOOC in 2017. Here are some highlights.

  • The number of MOOCs increased by 2,000 in the last year.
  • The average number of MOOCs offered by the top U.S. News & World Report universities increased from 12 to 17.
  • The top 50 U.S. News universities offer 26 more MOOCs than the bottom 50.
  • The growth in the number of MOOCs results from an increased number of international universities now offering these courses.

In summary, the report states “that MOOCs are following the steady trajectory of other online courses, especially as their population, popularity, and quality continue to grow, despite negative trends to the contrary for closed courses and more traditional educational formats.” This idea of steady growth is similar to distance learning projections reported by Allen and Seaman (2017).

Shah (2017) notes that the notion of an entirely free course is slowly diminishing, with the major companies introducing various business models for MOOC sustainability, charging for certificates of completion and in some cases charging for the grading of assignments. Shah outlines the business models for four major MOOC platforms.

  • edX, which still has some totally free courses, charges for certificates and professional education MOOCs.
  • Coursera is a moving target, depending on agreements with sponsoring universities. It charges for specialization courses that lead to a microcredential and offers a subscription model to access courses and obtain certificates.
  • FutureLearn, a United Kingdom provider owned by the Open University, offers content for free for a limited time. For a cost, one gets increased access, all exercises and exams, and a certificate. FutureLearn has entered into an agreement to offer six postgraduate degrees completely online in partnership with Deakin University.
  • Udacity partners with technology companies to offer free content, with a charge for certificates and for grading assignments and tests. Udacity offers a nanodegree as a credential for specialized studies that include graded assignments and mentorship.

A blog posting (Zhang, 2017) from the Teaching Colleges and Community Worldwide Online Conference peaked my interest. Zhang reports on a presentation by Aoki that emphasized the potential of MOOCs to create personalized, adaptive learning paths through the capabilities of learning analytics. “Life-wide,” an integrative learning process, builds on formal and informal learning, with the informal learning including MOOCs and other learning experiences.

I really like this idea of learners being able to create their own learning pathways through an online course module. By doing so, learners can build on prior learning and experiences to create the best pathway to accomplish learning outcomes.


Zhang’s blog (2017) leads me to what I consider the most significant report: a four-year study conducted by Harvard and MIT’s edX. Chuang and Ho (2016) describe the evolution of MOOCs and the use of data-mining techniques to determine the characteristics of enrolled students. The data mine included “290 courses, 245 thousand certificates, 4.5 million participants, 28 million participant-hours, and 2.3 billion events logged online” (p. 2).

Schaffhauser (2017) provides a snapshot of the typical student enrolled in a MOOC: a male in his 20s from outside the United States seeking a certificate. MOOC students are heterogeneous in their backgrounds with computer science and other STEM courses attracting the largest population of students. Students are routed to many other courses in areas such as government, health, and social sciences. A visualization of courses and their interconnections shows that health, genomics, logistics, and analytics are popular as indicated by the size of their circle. The study concludes that there has been steady enrollment in MOOCs, with a slight slowdown in certification because of the current charges for this service.

Here are some additional highlights. Sixty percent of students in a MOOC get certified. If a MOOC is offered a second time, there is a 25 percent decline in enrollment. About a third of participants are teachers, and 19 percent teach the subject matter being studied. The typical student who receives certification spends an average of 29 hours online completing the course and assignments. In terms of certificates, “controlling for population, HarvardX and MITx certificate earning remains disproportionately prevalent in countries with high Human Development Index [HDI] values where marketing, infrastructure, incentives and supports are likely converging to enable participants to earn certificates” (Chuang & Ho, 2016, p. 7). One exception is Rwanda, which has a high number of certificate earners given its Human Development Index.

Of interest to me was the modularization of content into small modules. In our informatics program, we have modularized our online courses, allowing learners to do a deep dive into content rather than surface learning (every week a new topic). Chuang and Ho (2016) found that most learners make it to the second module where there is a drop in participation. The learner who makes it past the second module has a greater likelihood of completing the MOOC.

In summary, MOOCs are alive and doing well. MOOCs, particularly in computer science and other STEM areas, are doing the best. I think the MOOCs have found their niche, and I am still a believer that nursing could benefit from having more MOOCs available for prerequisite courses for nursing school and for continuing professional development.

So, here are some final questions: Have we arrived at Gartner’s (2017)slope of enlightenment? Are the benefits of MOOCs more widely accepted? Are we seeing a new generation of MOOCs with different cost models to foster sustainability? Will this generation of MOOCs impact the way one learns or how we teach in academia? I believe we are on the slope of enlightenment and will eventually reach Gartner’s plateau of productivity. As always, let me know what you think at [email protected].


Allen I. E., & Seaman J. (2017). Digital learning compass: Distance education enrollment report 2017. Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate, and WCET. Retrieved from
Chuang I., & Ho A. D. (2016, December 23). HarvardX and MITx: Four years of open online courses—Fall 2012–Summer 2016. Retrieved from
Freeman S., Eddy S. L., McDonough M., Smith M. K., Okoroafor N., Jordt H., & Wenderoth M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410-8415. Retrieved from
Gartner. (2017). Gartner hype cycle. Available from
Online Course Report. (2017). State of the MOOC 2017: A year of privatized and open education growth. Retrieved from at
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Shah D. (2017, April 20). MOOCs started out completely free. Where are they now? EdSurge. Retrieved from
Skiba D. J. (2012). Disruption in higher education: Massively open online courses (MOOCs). Nursing Education Perspectives, 33(6), 416-417.
Skiba D. J. (2013). On the horizon: The year of the MOOC. Nursing Education Perspectives, 34(2), 136-137.
Ubell R. (2017, January 16). How the pioneers of the MOOC got it wrong. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved from
Ubell R. (2017, April 12). MOOCs find their sweet spot. In Inside Higher Ed.Retrieved from
Zhang Y. (2017, April 28). MOOCs and potentials for personalized learning paths [4/19/2017] by Dr. Kumiko Aoki [Web log post from Teaching Colleges and Community Worldwide Online Conference 2017]. Retrieved from
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