Out of necessity, eLearning has boomed during the pandemic. While schools and universities pivoted online in a hurry, encountering a whole raft of issues, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have had a very different experience. Their founding principle was to remove obstacles to learning, so they were set up as free online learning platforms available to anyone to learn new skills or develop their existing knowledge.

Since they were digital from the outset, the larger education platforms like Udemy, EdX, Skillshare or Coursera had already overcome the difficulties of online learning, so when the pandemic hit and the media was publishing 10 things to do in lockdown lists, they were ready for the influx of students that followed.

Image source: Class Central

In fact, of all the students that had ever registered on one of the massive open online course providers, Class Central reported that one-third of them did so in 2020. These top non-traditional education providers also all raised capital (a combined $2.2 billion of it in the US in 2020). For the MOOC the pandemic was a perfect storm. But the question now is: can they continue to weather it? Their ability to remove obstacles —including language barriers —to reach as many people as possible worldwide will be a decisive factor in their continued success. 

The MOOC, then and now

The golden years for MOOCs fell between their birth year in 2011 (a little earlier for Udemy) and 2015. But through lack of foresight on how to monetize, growth plateaued. Free programs to gain large audiences quickly proved ill-fated and the MOOCs ran out of cash. In an attempt to bounce back, they pivoted to shorter, fee-paying skill-building courses that promised to supplement, upgrade, and certify workers’ skills, which were then sold to companies and individuals. As reported by the New York Times, Udacity in particular opted for a wholehearted pivot to this approach, in comparison to the likes of Coursera and EdX which have retained their longer form degrees as well as offering microcredentials. 

Source image: Class Central

Then, in a peculiarly pandemic turn-of-events, the model experienced a resurgence in 2020. The short courses, designed by top universities, individual educators, and companies, were an ideal replacement for stagnated social lives. People, it seemed, wanted to spend their time wisely. As reported by Class Central, registration for soft skills and general topics increased. As an example,  2.5 million enrolled for Yale’s course, “The Science of Well-Being.”

The pandemic brought on a shift in attitude and a surplus of time for many and this finally legitimized what MOOCs have long believed to be a viable mode of learning: courses, as Harvard Business Review describes “unbundled from degrees” and their traditional institutions “into shorter-form microcredentials” designed to match the skills required for a rapidly evolving job market. 

“Everything really has to change” 

In his 2013 TED talk, Anant Agarwal, the MIT professor and founder of EdX said presciently, referring to the education system, that “everything really has to change.” He wasn’t to know then that after half a decade of steady growth and a couple of years plateauing, everything really would change – for the world, MOOCs included. The pandemic forced the “calcified” education system he described to quickly attempt to de-scale itself. As universities scrambled to support their students digitally – transferring lectures meant for auditoria on Zoom and relying heavily on open-source learning platforms like Moodle and video recording platform Panopto – MOOCs once again came into their own. The fact that their common format of explanatory videos accompanied by interactive exercises was designed for online learning has been key to their success. As reported by The Guardian, Allison Littlejohn, director of the UCL Institute of Education’s knowledge lab, says “it’s crucial that online learning experience is well-designed and we don’t simply shift existing content from one format to another.” A trap that traditional institutions would have inevitably fallen into due to time constraints.

But there has arguably been an even more significant aligning of the planets for MOOCs. According to Harvard Business Review, the pandemic struck at a time when technological advances – in the fields of computer and data science, AI, cybersecurity, and IT management – were so rapid that the continuous proficiency valued by employers in these fields can only be achieved with “continuous upskilling”. Such lifelong learning is infinitely more achievable in the shorter “credentialized packages” offered by MOOCs than it is through a traditional bachelor’s degree. The pandemic has accelerated not only the speed at which the digital economy has grown at large, but it has expanded the sectors in which it is becoming increasingly integral. This means that just as technological sectors require its workforce to keep pace with innovation, it’s likely that other sectors will too will begin to demand what the Harvard Business Review calls “shorter-form microcredentials”. These qualifications could be built over a career to combat an inevitable “shrinking shelf-life of skills” as fast-evolving technology becomes ever-more central to the likes of media, health, and sport.

Image source: Class Central

Future-proofing traditional business models

In that same 2013 TED talk, EdX founder Anant Agarwal tells the success story of his first MOOC (not yet coined that) an “MIT-hard” circuits and electronics course. With no marketing budget, it reached 155,000 students in 162 countries. Coursera, an EdX competitor, currently splits revenue 50-50 between universities for their certificate courses and 60-40 for degree courses, weighted towards the university. With vast reach, these courses could become viable streams of revenue for traditional institutions, especially as the job market evolves and students are more discerning about incurring debt for courses that may not necessarily continue to serve their future needs. 

The founding principle of MOOCs was to improve access to education; removing obstacles to learning, and thus democratizing it. But before we get carried away, let’s not be too rose-tinted – you still need an internet connection, some form of a computer device, and cash, but you can study if you’re working or have a family. The pandemic has forced us to review the value of the current format of higher education. It has also highlighted the speed at which things can change and that in uncertain times, adaptability is essential to survival. And while MOOCs may be optimized for digital learning, they will need to channel their founding energy to get ahead of new trends before their growth plateaus again. 

That might look like improving the reach and pass rates of their courses by translating content. It might look like finding more intuitive ways to recreate the physical, collaborative aspect of learning for arts and humanities subjects. Or it might be continuing to work with traditional institutions to adapt the format of qualifications to a rapidly changing job market – informed by the exploding tech economy – expedited by the pandemic. Most likely, it will be a bit of all three. What is for sure – is that while the pandemic has changed the way we learn in the short-term, there’s a strong chance that MOOCs will continue to transform it in the long-term.