What happened to online learning?

By Oliver Smith 12 May 2016

In 2008 MOOCs were heralded as the future of education, but since then it’s all gone rather quiet.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, where people can access learning online for free, was supposed to be the future of education.

Some went so far as to call MOOCs the deathknell of traditional universities.

The idea is simple enough, by making a university’s existing educational assets, filmed lectures, readings, problems and tests available online, a course once available to the privileged few in a room, can be made available to everyone for free.

The excitement started in 2008 when Dave Cormier coined the term in response to a Canadian University which ran a trial course for 25 fee-paying students and 2,200 online students who paid nothing.

And in March 2012 MIT ran its inaugural MOOC, an introductory course on Circuits and Electronics. Some 155,000 people signed up, and that’s five times bigger than Cardiff University’s entire student population.

Around the same time Khan Academy, FutureLearn and Udemy exploding into the public’s consciousness.

The New York Times even went so far as to call 2012 “the year of the MOOC“.

Drop-ins and dropouts

By 2013 however the hype had died, universities clearly weren’t going out of business, and people’s attention drifted towards education apps and the smartphone revolution’s impact on education.

“There’s no doubt there has been a MOOC hype cycle,” Edtech UK’s CEO Ian Fordham told The Memo. “And we are now in a period of consolidation in the market and diversification in the approach.”

Read more: How To Boss It Like… Ian Fordham, CEO Edtech UK

Indeed while headlines may have predicted the imminent downfall of universities in 2012: only 5% of the people who enrolled actually completed MIT’s first Circuits and Electronics MOOC.

Most MOOCs similarly report dropout rates that exceed 90%, although this statistic is maybe not as bad as it seems.

In MIT’s case that still equated to a huge 7,157 people completing their first MOOC. For comparison it would take 40 years for that many students to sit the Circuits and Electronics course in real life.

Likewise these online courses haven’t exactly levelled the playing field when it comes to higher education.

“Most people doing MOOCs are university graduates already,” the former minister of state for schools and chief education adviser at TES, Lord Jim Knight, told The Memo.

“So it’s not necessarily the massive democratisation of learning we thought it might be.”

Read more: Lord Jim Knight – China and Google could teach us a lesson

Despite the negative, or absence of, publicity, MOOCs have soldiered on.

Beyond the hype

“Nearly every new digital initiative is overhyped at the beginning and touted as ‘changing the face’ of or presaging “the death of” an industry and its key players,” Simon Nelson, CEO of the first UK-led MOOC FutureLearn, told The Memo. “This unquestionably happened with the early enthusiasts for MOOCs.”

“In my opinion, it is only now that universities and other organisations are grasping the true potential of what can be achieved with MOOCs and the wider online learning opportunities that they represent.”

Indeed FutureLearn was launched by The Open University in 2012 and has now grown to offer courses from 56 universities, both from the UK and internationally, and will run over 500 individual courses this year.

Nelson also says FutureLearn is bucking many of the pitfalls that other MOOCs have fallen into.

A more diverse, more inclusive education for all?

“Around a quarter of people who start a course on FutureLearn complete the majority of steps and all the assessments, roughly double the completion rates that other providers report,” says Nelson. “On our top 50 courses last year that average was 40%.”

“And with around 60% of learners being female, FutureLearn is also bucking the male-dominated trend of early MOOC platforms.”

In the next month or two FutureLearn will sign up its four millionth student, a milestone for the group and a sign, Nelson says, of the good things to come.

“Massive social learning is just getting going and there is a very exciting future ahead,” says Nelson.

“Watch this space towards the end of the month for a major development in the role online courses will play in the UK higher education landscape.”

The future’s bright for MOOCs, and we can’t wait to see what the future in this space holds.