What’s going on with MOOCs?


Graphic from http://edudemic.com/


Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have their origins in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement and despite having been around in their current form since 2008[1] have only recently emerged as one of the big stories in higher education.

It would not be too difficult to dismiss the current batch of MOOCs as more about extending the brand reach of elite HE institutions than improving the quality of learning, enhancing the student experience or even making money. Especially as most of the MOOC partnerships appear to be closed shops with membership by invitation only!

The technology underpinning MOOCs is also nothing new: video streaming; open educational resources; online assessment; and communication/collaboration tools are already well-established elements of HE course delivery. Many institutions already make considerable use of services such as Khan Academy, iTunesU, YouTube and TED for learning with MOOCs adding very little by way of additional functionality. There is also nothing new in the ability to access advanced learning content from world leading academics/institutions such as MIT or Oxford without having to pay any fees or sign-up for credit/qualification led learning.

What does appear to be new is rate and scale of adoption of the MOOC model. The major MOOC providers, including Coursera, Futurelearn, edX and Udacity, are signing up new partner institutions and enrolling students in a way that suggests that they are investing for the future rather than merely joining a very noisy media driven bandwagon.

It may be too early to evaluate the impact of MOOCs on HE but they have the potential to be highly disruptive. The challenge to current models of HE course delivery and accreditation is clear. However it may be that the most potent threat to HE from the emergence of the MOOCs will be the impact on the model of the university teacher as content expert. As access to content expertise shifts from scarcity to abundance the role of the lecturer may return to one where content curation and mentoring are to the fore with content transmission being assumed. A very good thing in my view!

So what is going to happen next? This thoughtful piece on 5 Potential Ways MOOCs Will Evolve from Edudemic looks to me to about right.

My expectations are:

  • That more education/learning/skills providers will make use of MOOCs initially as users and over time increasingly as providers
  • They will really become ‘open’ rather than restricted to elite institutions
  • They will more often be offered as part of normal provision rather than as a bolt on
  • Sometimes they will not very ‘massive’ but rather than targeted at the highly specialised niche requirements of learners
  • They will contribute to the long overdue adoption of more blended approach to learning.  One where the responsibility of the learner for his or her own learning is enhanced AND this is maximised by having access to great advice, support, contextualisation, curation etc from peers AND ALSO  from teachers/lecturers/mentors who may be a little further along the road and can contribute to improving  the quality of the learning …

See below for a brief overview/snapshot of some of the main providers as of March 2013 – likely to be out of date by the end of the week as the world of MOOC is rapidly changing.


Founded by the Open University in December 2012. The initial partners to join the OU were: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton and Warwick. With St Andrews as the only Scottish partner. In February 2013 five other institutions joined: Bath, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast and Reading. The 18th partner to join is the British Library. Futurelearn currently looks like a closed shop but may be required to become open to new partners over time, especially given the UK national roles of the OU and the British Library.

Interview with Vice Chancellor of the Open University


This for profit company was launched in April 2012 by two Stanford University computer science academics with a $16m venture capital investment, and claims to have recruited 2.5m students within 6 months.[2] Coursera currently has 62 Universities signed-up as partners with the University of Edinburgh and University[3] of London International Programmes[4] being the only ones from the UK. Coursera institutions have offered a wide range of courses rather than having a focus on computer science.  The 6 courses currently being offered by Edinburgh range from ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ through ‘AI Planning’ to ‘Equine Nutrition’.


For profit company launched in February 2012 by amongst others Stanford University AI professor and Google Associate Sebastian Thrun. Claims 400k students with the two initial courses following-on from Thrun’s experiment at Stanford where he ran an ‘Introduction to AI’ course that had180,000 enrolments. Venture capital funding of $15m secured with additional support from IT companies including Google and Microsoft.[5] Catalogue of course growing mainly around computer science, mathematics, science and business.  At the moment most courses appear with only the Udacity brand. The exception being the three mathematics courses, announced in January 2013, in partnership with San Jose State University.


Not for profit partnership between Harvard University and MIT launched in April 2012 with $30m of funding.[6] Has expanded over the last year to 12 universities including McGill and Australian National University. Courses are typically in computer science and the sciences but expanding rapidly across other faculties.

Update of 3 April
edX merges with Stanford’s Class2Go to create open source learning platform.

[Note: The stimulus for this post comes from some work I am currently engaged with in my role as visiting professor of learning innovation and technology at the University of Abertay, Dundee, Scotland.]
[1] http://futurelearn.com/moocs-explained/

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coursera

[3] https://www.coursera.org/edinburgh

[4] https://www.coursera.org/london

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udacity

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EdX

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