MOOCs Beyond Professional Development: Coursera’s Big Announcement in Context

One aspect of last week’s Coursera announcement was the acknowledgement that MOOCs to date have primarily served as a mechanism for professional development, not as a mechanism for serving higher education per se. In the Chronicle article:

 Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, acknowledged that the company was venturing into new terrain. After studying their MOOC users, the company realized that most of them had already earned college degrees, said Ms. Koller. That was well and good, but it suggested to Coursera’s founders that MOOCs would not be sufficient to achieve their ambitions.

“If you’re looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you’re going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with,” Ms. Koller said.

and from the New York Times:

“Our first year, we were enamored with the possibilities of scale in MOOCs,” said Daphne Koller, one of the two Stanford computer science professors who founded Coursera. “Now we are thinking about how to use the materials on campus to move along the completion agenda and other challenges facing the largest public university systems.”

These statements can be understood by looking at the demographic data for students that have been taking xMOOCs (i.e. from Coursera, Udacity and edX) in their first year.

As early as Fall 2012, demographic information was coming out that the majority of MOOC students already had a higher education degree. From Chuck Severance’s slideshare summarizing student data in his Internet History, Technology and Security course on Coursera, we saw that 73% of students answering his survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.

IHTS demographics

From Duke’s February 2013 report on their Bioelectricity course on Coursera, 72% of students answering their survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Duke demographics

And from the University of Edinburgh’s May 2013 report on six different courses all on Coursera, we find that a combined 70% of students in their study already had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Edinburgh demographics

At Coursera’s April 2013 partners conference, they shared that across all courses 75% of students within their system already had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Coursera demographics

Is this situation unique to Coursera? Perhaps not. In the Summer 2013 issue of Research & Practice in Assessment magazine, Lori Breslow and others studied the Circuits & Electronics course in edX and found that 65% of students answering his survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Of the survey responders who answered a question about highest degree attained, 37% had a bachelor’s degree, 28% had a master’s or professional degree, and 27% were high school graduates.

It is interesting to note that there is virtually no public data from Udacity or its partners. Coursera and their partners have been leaders among the xMOOC providers in sharing data from these courses.

The consistency of data (ranging from 65% – 75% of MOOC students having at least a bachelor’s degree) is actually quite remarkable given the ad hoc nature of surveys and studies.

When combined with the fact that MOOCs to date have not been applied for academic credit, it is apparent that the primary usage of MOOCs has been for professional development or lifelong learning. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

In fact, some of the proponents of the original connectivist MOOCs, or cMOOCs, have exactly that goal in mind of enabling lifelong learning.

How Does This Affect Recent Announcements?

The MOOC providers set out to revolutionize higher education, but as Daphne Koller indicated the usage of standalone MOOC courses to date is not sufficient, despite the huge numbers of enrolled students. The data points to the need for targeting degree-seeking students in a more aggressive manner than the current “it’s open for all” approach while also finding more immediate methods for allowing MOOC students to earn academic credit. To allow for academic credit for MOOCs, the actual course designs and assessment have satisfy accrediting bodies, and the credits have to be accepted by degree-granting institutions.

To have a real impact on helping students get their degrees, there seems to be two choices:

  • Option 1) Replace colleges and universities as providers of for-credit courses or even degree programs
  • Option 2) Work with colleges and universities to embed MOOC courses or courseware into for-credit courses or degree programs

The biggest news in the MOOC world in 2013 is the development of Option 2), which is the only viable way in the short term for MOOCs to directly impact degree-seeking higher education students. edX expanded their pilot program at San Jose State University to embed Circuits & Electronics MOOC within official SJSU courses. Udacity also announced a program with SJSU to offer for-credit MOOC-based courses. Udacity also announced the development of a MOOC-only online master’s degree program through Georgia Tech. And now, Coursera also moves to use MOOC courses as the basis for college and university courses.

I do not see Options 1) and 2) and mutually exclusive, by the way. I would assume that Coursera, Udacity and edX will continue to offer standalone MOOCs while also enabling collegiate embedding of MOOCs into official courses and programs.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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20 Responses to MOOCs Beyond Professional Development: Coursera’s Big Announcement in Context

  1. Pingback: MOOCs Beyond Professional Development: Coursera’s Big Announcement in Context – e-Literate | Flexibility Enables Learning

  2. tom abeles says:

    Burks Smith’s StraighterLine has already addressed these options by giving ACE credit which can stand alone or be accepted for transfer into a degree granting institution which in-turn could follow either path. MOOC’s are just “massive”

    More important is the “elephant-in-the-room, the idea of a college/university experience, the traditional on-campus life around “old main” and the quotes on its frieze. Just looking at the profiles presented on MOOC’s and the changing demographics, including “years-to-completion” in US post secondary institutions, with the exception of medallion and selective liberal arts institutions, their function at the bachelor level is changing as are the campuses themselves.

    Like measles, the rash appears after the infection has been present and the contagion spread. Treating the itch is a palliative and avoids consideration of the larger issue at hand.

    To be cynical, could one draw the parallel between the “colleges” and major retailers who stock their own brands and provide shelf space to other product suppliers- think an academic “” with a course catalog, accompanying texts, rating systems and even trade-in allowances for conversion to degrees. One might also look at the major suppliers of academic materials and platforms, think Pearson and its competitors.

  3. Perhaps there is a third path toward a revolution in higher education we can imagine if we disconnect the education from the credentialing — or at least from traditional credentials such as degrees, credits and diplomas. It is possible, obviously, for someone to receive a higher education without receiving those credentials, but until now there was no way to access it easily and no way to communicate to the marketplace when you have done it. We may see someone like Coursera being a provider of higher education without being a provider of degrees and credits and doing so in a way that the marketplace values. That would be a revolution in higher education.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  4. tom abeles says:

    hi robert

    Actually a number of foundations are supporting the idea of “badges” which are competency-based equivalence to what one got as a scout. UW-Madison now offers a campus-free path to a degree, Capella and others now have flex-degrees which allow for a blend. We are in an interesting race as to what it takes to define and validate competencies and which “agency”, including those offering MOOC’s can compete for such a service. This is in addition to the professional organizations that have their own credential evaluations not necessarily limited to the United States.

    As I said, above, MOOC’s are just massive and international. They are just finding out how to play in a changing marketplace. They are important because they amplify and make visible, like the measles’ rash, a late stage (after the contagion stage has advanced). That is not to discount their potential value, internationally, or like early e-learning supported by Sloan, have value along with other emergent alternatives. What this means to the traditional “body academic” makes one think of Wordsworth’s ode to immortality, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.

    Could it be that all the digital ink being spilled over MOOC’s is equivalent to the stamped of citizens, in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, to crowd into the castle to keep out the plague?

  5. John Cammack says:

    Straighterline is ideally positioned for option 2.

  6. I think we’re all waiting for the other shoe to fall: widespread acceptance by traditional graduate employers that a self-managed electronic testamur made up of badges is functionally equivalent to a formal college degree. The likelihood of this in the short term really depends on the discipline, especially in relation to the professional disciplines that service external accreditation requirements and standards, and that have higher levels of risk in relation to professional undertraining. But the wedge is already in place in many areas, especially technology itself, and certainly in business.

    From this angle, the mission to revolutionise higher education is really a mission to capture and reshape the future of professional recruitment, networking and career progression. That’s a much bigger market, actually.

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Tom and Robert, interesting thoughts, but I think there is a big difference between ‘badges’ and competency-based education. The later, CBE, goes through traditional institutions and official credentials (and therefore, through accreditation).

    John, I agree that StraighterLine has positioned itself for Option 2).

    Kate, great points as usual. I think that the most viable business models for MOOCs are in two areas – courseware & partnership with universities (short to medium term opportunity, per this post) and employer-accepted badges (longer-term big opportunity, per your comment). I suspect we’ll see MOOC providers go after both markets simultaneously.

  8. tom abeles says:

    hi phil

    here is the question: how long can the traditional institutions hold onto their role as “gate keepers”. There is a very “iffy” proposal in US congress to allow for alternative paths for new institutions to gain such ability. And there is movement to speed up both the process for certification of institutions as well as students. Secondly, while “badges” and “CBE” may need to be vetted by current institutions, it is necessary to ascertain exactly how long the institutions can “foot drag” now that there is a crack in the Ivy Covered Wall, which seems to be widening. As you, I and others have pointed out, StraighterLine saw this coming almost a decade ago. Others now have a path. The flex programs such as Capella; the campus-less degree from UW-Madison.

    It is difficult for me to see how we can continue to give comfort to the traditional institutions when we seem to be in a “Christensen” disruptive moment. What’s your best guess to how long?

  9. Phil Hill says:

    Tom, I don’t know of any simple answer to ‘how long’, but I think there is a related question of ‘how’. There likely won’t be a direct change to institutions controlling credentials of true value, but rather several partial changes. For example, the change described by Kate in professional recruitment, networking and career progression to seek alternatives to formally-accredited programs through schools – this has the biggest near-term (2-4 years) potential IMO.

    The Minerva / ACE changes to essentially recommend / coerce accreditation is interesting, but I don’t see any near-term efforts that will stick. For example, the California SB520 bill originally included ACE along with legislated credit, essentially strong-arming the schools to provide de facto accreditation. This language was the first to go under serious debate. I hear Obama’s language on alternative paths to accreditation, but it seems like current efforts are thrust-and-parry in nature, not long-term approaches. I don’t see complete removal of institutional ownership of credentialing. Schools are also adapting (not all, but some), and the Christensen model will not completely apply to higher ed.

    There are probably big changes in the 5-7 year time frame that we’ll look back and say ‘boy, we’re very different than 5-7 years ago’, but not to the level of institutions not being the preeminent source of credentials of value – just a wider variety with multiple pathways.

    Hmm, this comment thread could be used as a boost or weapon for my reputation in several years :}

  10. tom abeles says:

    hi phil

    I think your time frame is reasonable. Remember that the disruption in Christensen’s model does not imply a catastrophic change or a complete demise of the “old”. One can see the deft development of an institution like “Capella” at the edge of change. And StraighterLine was preceded by Smith’s other disruption, Smartthinking both of which meld collaboratively with the conventional institutions.

    What is missing, and you allude to the shifting within the “Walls”, is the “purpose” of the institution. When we are talking about “certification” it basically makes it an extension of grades from 9-12 to 9-16. At one time the function of the post secondary world served a limited population and had a more complex socio/cultural/political purpose. That issue has been conveniently avoided. It has been suggested that this separation may again emerge in a different form.

    MOOC’s are interesting because they point out that knowledge and knowledge services are not bound by geo/political boundaries which creates new and unresolved issues for students, academic institutions and, unspoken, governments. As I have said, before, focusing on the mechanisms for delivery and the business models treats the “rash” or “itch”. It avoids the “hard” questions facing all these populations.


    ps As an interesting aside, for another discussion, is the focus on STEM, which has the humanities more than a little concerned and neglects the philosophical ramifications which, unfortunately, lies buried and obfuscated, in part, in the thinking on education and government of Michel Foucault and others.

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