Voices in Education

How MOOCs are Inspiring the Future of Higher Education
Five years ago this summer, the attention of the higher education community and the national media was focused squarely on what many claimed was a revolutionary new approach to education—massively open online courses, or MOOCs. The Atlantic labeled the MOOC revolution “the single most important experiment in higher education,” while by fall, The New York Times had christened 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.”[i]
Today, MOOC providers—led by Coursera, edX, and Udacity—offer nearly 7,000 online courses across 700-plus university partners. In 2016, they enrolled 23 million new individuals.[ii] Some of these start-ups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and firms such as Coursera and Udacity, still just a few years old, are valued at approximately $1 billion. Importantly, today’s more mature marketplace of MOOC-based learning has pivoted away from free general interest courses, and is instead focused on fee-based certificates and professional programs (in other words, the attainment of credentials). This program-level rather than course-centric approach is spawning entirely new types of postsecondary credentials—and further, MOOC-based technology infrastructure and pedagogical innovations are becoming interwoven into traditional higher education programs. One could argue that this technological evolution and potential to reshape the economics of higher education delivery is indeed one of the most important experiments in higher education.
While many observers and media headlines focus on microcredentials (e.g., the “Nanodegrees” offered by Udacity) as an existential threat to higher education, what deserves greater attention and analysis is that by building on or being inspired by MOOCs, some of the world’s largest and most prestigious universities have been successfully pioneering microcredentials of their own and experiencing explosive growth.
The successful “MicroMasters” construct—originally developed at MIT—has now substantially expanded, via edX and its partner schools. MicroMasters credentials are now offered by Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, among many others.[iii] Harvard Business School’s “Credential of Readiness” (CORe) program has enrolled thousands of students, and today articulates for college credit in Harvard Extension School.[iv] In addition to providing graduates with a new type of credential, these programs are notably testing an entirely new approach to graduate school admissions. For example, the MicroMasters is positioned as a new assessment approach and entry pathway to MIT graduate programs.[v] Similarly, it has been reported that 300 of Harvard Business School’s nearly 900 admits were CORe graduates.[vi] Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, and a number of University of California campuses have created a collaborative effort called the “University Learning Store,” a portal that offers an array of low-cost microcredentials and competency assessments.[vii]
Importantly, MOOCs and microcredentials are also beginning to reshape the market for traditional degrees in an environment that appears thirsty for programs that are
more targeted, economical, competency-oriented, and often delivered online. At a number of institutions, MOOC-based certificates are the foundation for a “traditional” degree credential at a much lower cost. For example, Georgia Tech’s $6,600 Online Master of Science in Computer Science degree has been immensely successful.[viii] Similarly, Coursera’s $22,000 MOOC-based iMBA at the University of Illinois has enrolled more than 500 students—and the firm now aims to offer 15–20 similar degrees by 2019 with various university partners.[ix]
In addition, the results of early experiments are showing that MOOCs can be woven into the undergraduate or residential experience to make higher education more convenient and economical. Georgia Tech recently reported positive results from an experiment in which its master’s-level MOOC-based approach can be deployed to reduce the time and cost for undergraduate computer science students.[x] Similarly, MIT also very recently reported that applying MOOC content and technology in residential education resulted in greater flexibility for students.[xi]

In this way, the lasting legacy of MOOCs will not be in online courses, but rather, in new higher education credentials, business models, and approaches to delivering degrees.

[xi] http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-pilots-full-credit-online-residential-course-0612

About the Author: Sean Gallagher is the executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, and executive professor of educational policy. He is the author of The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring (Harvard Education Press, 2016).