It has been over seven years since education institutions and organizations started experimenting with large-scale online courses known as MOOC. In this period, more than 100 million people globally have engaged with this platform and though how they are used keeps changing, it is a sign that MOOC is here to stay.

The success and impact of MOOC has been a topic of heavy debate with with many experts voicing that online education has not lived up to its potential.

new report written by Spiros Protopsaltis, an associate professor and director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, says that fully online course work contributes to socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps while failing to be more affordable than traditional courses. More on this debate later…

In the meantime, the latest annual round-up from Class Central highlights another year of strong growth, but also a sharpening focus among MOOC providers (or “Massive Open Online Courses”) on revenue growth and the expansion of degree programmes.

Two big trends dominated the MOOC landscape this year.

First, despite continued slowdown in the growth of new users, MOOC platforms are seeing an increase in paying customers (and revenues). Second, more and more degrees are being offered through MOOC platforms, pointing the way toward what may ultimately be a lasting revenue model. MOOC-based degrees have some distinctive features that distinguish them from earlier online degrees, including lower fees, a more flexible schedule and a more relaxed admissions process.

In 2018, MOOC providers focused on big-ticket items: corporate training and online degrees.

In 2018, 20 million new learners signed up for at least one MOOC, down from 23 million the year before. Despite the slowdown, the number of paying users may have increased. MOOC providers’ constant tweaking of the model seems to be paying off, as companies such as Coursera are hitting record revenues ($140 million in 2018 for Coursera).

By the end of 2018, more than 900 universities around the world had announced or launched 11,400 MOOCs, with around 2,000 new courses added to the list this year (down from 2,500 courses added in 2017). The number of available MOOCs has grown dramatically in the last few years due to scheduling policy changes, but since user growth hasn’t kept up, each course is getting fewer takers.

The first online degrees by Coursera, Udacity and edX have done well, with combined potential revenue of more than $80-million, based on numbers of current students. Over 10,000 students are currently enrolled in a MOOC-based degree program. But the bulk of those of students come from just two universities and three online degrees: the Online Master’s Degree in Computer Science (Georgia Tech with Udacity), the Online Master of Science in Analytics (Georgia Tech with edX), and the iMBA (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Coursera).

The initial success of these degrees has led providers including—Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn—to launch more online degrees. Many of those degrees that have been announced are not yet live or even accepting applications.

Between these trends—the increase in paying users, the launch of new online degrees and a focus on corporate training—there is a steady shift in focus towards paying users.

Online learning fails to deliver, finds report 

Spiros Protopsaltis, an associate professor and director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, co-wrote the report with Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College. Protopsaltis is a former aide in the Obama administration’s Education Department and to Senate Democrats. Baum advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“Online education has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students,” they wrote. “Faculty, academic leaders, the public and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favorably than traditional degrees.”

The report said its review of the evidence demonstrated that:

  • Online education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education and its growth is over represented in the for-profit sector;
  • Faculty and academic leaders, employers and the general public are skeptical about the quality and value of online education, which they view as inferior to face-to-face education;
  • Students in online education, particularly under prepared and disadvantaged students, under perform and on average experience poor outcomes;
  • Online education has failed to improve affordability, frequently costs more than in-person alternatives and does not produce a positive return on investment;
  • Regular and substantive student-instructor interactivity is a key determinant of quality in online education, leading to improved student satisfaction, learning and outcomes.

The stakes are high, its co-authors conclude.

“There is a real risk that both cost-cutting efforts and well-intentioned moves to expand access to higher education could lead to greater numbers of disadvantaged students being relegated to cheap and ineffective online instruction, with detrimental results, both in terms of outcomes and student loan defaults,” they wrote.

Clearly, focus on faculty interactions and hybrid models of online learning avoid most of the pitfalls of fully online ones, at least when they feature strong in-person components and when online material and technology are used mostly as a supplement.

This came out clearly in the report where the authors argue that;

“Students without strong academic backgrounds are less likely to persist in fully online courses than in courses that involve personal contact with faculty and other students and when they do persist, they have weaker outcomes,”

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the report by Protopsaltis and Baum painted online education with too broad a brush. For example, its comparisons between online programs and on-campus ones failed to acknowledge the low graduation rates and default rates of many traditional programs that enroll similarly high percentages of low-income, older students.

Likewise, Schroeder said the report ignored the value of subdegree credentials such as online certificates and industry certifications. And he said it did not account for the growing potential of technology like adaptive learning to boost student results online.

“The tools we have in higher education are being refined by AI, machine learning and the ways we can engage students,” said Schroeder.

For their part, Protopsaltis and Baum said they were optimistic about the utility of some of those tools.

“Technology has the potential for creating meaningful opportunities for low-income students,” Baum said. But she said the risks are too high to aggressively deregulate before more evidence is in about the effectiveness of that technology.

The report’s co-authors and its critics agreed that further research is needed on the rapidly evolving field of online education, particularly as more high-quality colleges and universities ramp up their online offerings.

The Georgia Institute of Technology gets a nod in the report for its online master’s degree in computer science, which Baum and Protopsaltis said appears to be expanding access in an affordable and valuable way. Yet Gallagher said little research has been done about the rapid growth of similar online master’s programs in recent years.

“There’s huge momentum for online education,” he said.

The MOOC Point – Online Learning Debate and Trends in 2018

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