This article originally appeared in Zócalo Public Square.
Ten years ago, in May 2012, Harvard and MIT announced the launch of edX, their nonprofit platform for massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs). Together with Coursera and Udacity (both launched in the first months of 2012), these three platforms promised to make “the best education in the world freely accessible to any person,” as Coursera put in its mission statement. The New York Times called 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” and the Chronicle of Higher Education covered “MOOC mania.” The promise of MOOCs and the principle of open access with global reach created hype that stretched across the U.S. as well as into Europe.
But in the halls of the United States’ hierarchical and stratified university system, it looked more like MOOC panic—then-Stanford president John Hennessy warned of a “tsunami,” Udacity co-founder (and former Stanford professor) Sebastian Thrun predicted that only 10 higher education institutions would survive the MOOC revolution, and the University of Virginia even seemingly ousted its president (however briefly) for failing to jump on the bandwagon.
In 2022, MOOCs are no longer a buzzword, and most of these promises and fears have gone unrealized. A decade on, what can the MOOC story—and the way it diverged between the U.S. and Europe—tell us about the future of online education?
At the beginning of the MOOC hype, American MOOC founders shared a missionary spirit, a set of charitable goals—and a belief that computational media technologies could fix everything, including long-standing social problems such as unequal access to education. Images portraying students of color in rural villages and young Afghani girls in their homes populated the homepages of major providers and their launch videos. Ironically, prestigious private universities characterized by high selectivity and high tuition fees became the first promoters of an educational model that promised to remove the same barriers to access that had shaped them.
The mainstream, U.S.-based MOOCs originated from bottom-up initiatives led by charismatic computer science professors whose faith in the salvational potential of technology paired well with the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. Some of these organizations followed for-profit business models from the outset (Udacity, Coursera), while others (notably edX) slowly drifted toward market-oriented solutions over time. A few years in, all of these providers had introduced paywalls and limited access to course materials to paying subscribers.
While most of the leading American platforms progressively lost the first “O” of their acronym—the one that stands for “open”—European initiatives have tended to favor learning experimentation, enlarging the audience of potential users, and preserving cultural and linguistic diversity as well as accessibility and openness. (An exception is Future Learn, the U.K.-based platform that ranks among the top three MOOC providers globally and follows typical market principles.) In Europe, governments played an active and participatory role in MOOCs from the beginning, and higher education institutions opted not to outsource their online courses, instead relying on a mix of pan-European aggregators, country-level initiatives, and single university initiatives.
In 2013, for example, the French government—led by the Ministry of Higher Education and three other public organizations—launched a national initiative called France Université Numérique (FUN), a clearinghouse for hundreds of MOOCS from French universities and educational institutions. FUN continues to use open-source learning systems and to serve both French students and those outside the country, including via a recently created Moroccan platform. In Italy, MOOC platforms release course content under the shareable Creative Commons license; some also post course videos on YouTube. And many European platforms offer courses in English alongside national languages and Arabic. By contrast, American MOOCs do not apply open licenses to their resources, thereby preventing their adaptation, redistribution, or reuse.
The downside to all this diversity in Europe is that it creates a certain degree of confusion about where and how to find courses among novice MOOC learners—a number that grows every year, even if the media hype peaked by the second half of 2013. The number of MOOC students grew for eight years—Class Central, a MOOC aggregator, estimated 16 to 18 million total enrolled in 2014 and 120 million in 2019. And then, the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 and the consequent lockdown policies surged interest in distance online learning to unprecedented levels and helped recast the fate of MOOCs. In April 2020, the three biggest MOOC providers registered as many new learners as they had done in all of 2019, reaching a total of 126 million new users. That number exploded to 220 million in 2021.
But these are not necessarily the students the original MOOC founders claimed they planned to serve. Research has shown that the largest share of users come from affluent countries or neighborhoods, already have high levels of education, and are employed in highly skilled professions. They rely on MOOCs largely for continuing professional training rather than for traditional university courses.
The past decade and the recent resurgence of MOOCs shows that despite their hype waning, MOOCs can be considered anything but a “moment,” an entirely new phenomenon disconnected from the dynamics happening in the society. Rather, MOOCs are the most visible part of a broader trend that concerns the digitalization of many aspects of people’s lives, education included. Now, as mainstream commercial platforms grow alongside less popular but still lively public and less market-oriented platforms, the time is ripe for moving the conversation on MOOCs to a more pragmatic level about whom they best serve, and which platforms—beyond the mainstream—are doing the most interesting and experimental work. As more parts of our lives move online, many questions remain: Will people move away from more traditional models of education? Will online education continue to serve the same type of students, or can its reach expand beyond to new terrain? Will online coursework provide an arena for people around the world to remain plugged-in? And will MOOCs be part of it all?
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.