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Nearly 4,000 MOOCS


A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. Such courses have received a lot of attention during the past four years, and huge amounts of money have been spent in their development. Quoting from Ellen Wexler’s article, MOOCs Are Still Rising, at Least in Numbers (Wexler, 10/19/2015):

When one of the first massive open online courses appeared at Stanford University, 160,000 students enrolled. It was 2011, and fewer than 10 MOOCs existed worldwide.

It has been four years since then, and according to a new report, the cumulative number of MOOCs has reached nearly 4,000.

The cumulative number of MOOCs didn’t break 100 until the end of 2012. But by the end of 2013 that number had grown to over 800. And today the number of registered MOOC students added in 2015 is nearly equal to the last three years combined. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Wow, nearly 4,000 courses, and substantially increasing enrollment! My immediate reaction was to wonder how much it has cost to develop all of these courses.

My second reaction was to the statement that there has been a substantial gain in enrollment in MOOCs during the past year. For some detailed information about MOOC enrollments at Harvard and MIT, see Carl Strausheim’s article, Surveying the MOOC Landscape (Straumsheim, 4/2/2015). Harvard and MIT are two of the major “players” in the MOOC game, and their enrollment alone suggests how massive the total enrollment has been. Quoting from the article:

Harvard and M.I.T. on Wednesday released what researchers there called “one of the largest investigations of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date” -- an analysis of 68 MOOCs, 1.7 million learners, 10 million hours of activity and 1.1 billion logged events. The report covers MOOCs offered by the two institutions between July 24, 2012, and Sept. 21, 2014, through edX, a MOOC provider they co-founded.

This and many other reports include discussions about the very low percentage of enrollees who complete the courses. Very few of the enrollees worked more an a half-dozen hours in a course before quitting. See the full report at

The increasing enrollment and the number of courses that have been created suggest to me that MOOC developers and their institutions believe MOOCs will eventually prove to be both an effective aid to learning and a cost effective change agent in higher education.

A 211-page report, MOOCS: Expectations and Reality, provides information about the development of such courses (Hollands & Tirthali, May, 2014). According to this report, there are a number of companies that contract with universities and other institutions to develop MOOCs. Coursera, working with more than 130 partners, has developed about a third of the current MOCCs.

The costs of developing a MOOC seem to vary all over the map. However, a reasonable estimate is that it costs in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 to develop a high quality one-term college or university MOOC. Thus, the nearly 4,000 MOOCs currently in existence represent an investment of perhaps 4,000 x $200,000 = $800 million. While that sounds like a lot of money, current annual costs of higher education in the U.S. are about $300 billion. So, the cost of developing all of these courses has been a “drop in the bucket.”

However, the developmental cost is just part of the overall cost of providing MOOCs to students. One must also take into consideration the computer and personnel costs of actually running such a course, and the costs of maintaining and periodically updating a course. For a traditional teacher-taught course, the teacher is responsible for the time and cost of updating a course as well as for making corrections and/or changes to the content based on student responses. A MOCC tends to have a considerable amount of media-based content and presentation, and changes to this can be costly.

Georgia Tech has developed an entire MOOC-based master’s degree in Computer Science. Students enrolling in this program of study at Georgia Tech pay well under half as much tuition as students enrolled in the face-to-face degree program.

Details of the Georgia Tech program are available in an article by Hollands & Tirthali (May, 2014). Their three-year budget estimates include paying for updates to courses. In computer science courses, some of the content changes substantially every year, while some other courses are expected to go two or three years without significant change.

Georgia Tech estimates that the project will become profitable after three years. However, the Hollands & Tirthali article suggests that this projection is based on what they believe are overly high estimates of enrollment. Perhaps the key point is that MOOCs hold the potential to significantly decrease the cost of higher education for students who can “thrive” in that structure as institutions provide more such degree programs.

And, of course, it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing situation. Any institution can make use of MOOCs as part of their regular curriculum. In addition, a MOOC can be part of a blended course that has both MOOC and fact-to-face components. This type of blended arrangement has proved relatively successful in the types of online courses at the precollege level and in higher education courses that have been widely used in the past, and are still being widely used.

One of the advantages of a MOCC is that substantial data can be gathered about the time that individual students are spending online, their performance on assignments, and their performance on tests. Additional feedback comes from details of student participation in the course’s online discussions. All of this data can be analyzed (mainly by computer) to provide information useful in improving a course.

The current four-year history of major use of MOOCs is not sufficient to provide good information about how effective and useful such courses will be over the long run.

Some MOOC Problems

Institutions offering MOOCs are gradually making progress in dealing with issues such as:

I find the last topic particularly interesting. Some employers view successful MOCC students to be particularly desirable potential employees. These students have demonstrated a certain type of ability to learn on their own and to be responsible for their own progress in a course. As students in the courses, they did not require a lot of individual supervision and "hand holding."

In addition, it may prove to be that MOOCs offered by highly reputable institutions will set higher standards than traditional face-to-face courses in many lower ranking institutions.

Final Remarks

Remember, MOOCs are still “the new kid on the block” in terms of distance education. They have attracted a lot of attention, and substantial research is being done on how to make MOOCs into learning-effective and cost-effective instructional vehicles. At the current time, MOOCs are mainly used in higher education. However, some high school students have been successful in taking such undergraduate and graduate school courses.

It seems obvious to me that, over the long run, various forms of distance learning (including MOOCs) will become a routine part of education at all levels. After all, think about books, film and videos, records and tapes. In essence, they constitute a type of distance education. We have a steadily improving science of teaching and learning, and we have steadily improving technology to help implement important ideas from that science.

My prediction is that various forms of distance education and blended (distance plus face-to-face) learning will gradually become the norm in education at all levels. Students who can learn to function well in a distance education environment will have a distinct advantage over those who cannot. I believe it behooves our educational system to help all students learn to “learn on their own” from the instructional aids and resources provided through the Web and other online resources.

What You Can Do

Don’t forget that an individual student does the learning and an individual student makes use of his or her own learning. Learning has always been an individual (in one’s own mind) activity. However, over thousands of years we humans have developed aids to learning and aids to making use of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Humans have had tens of thousands of years to become accustomed to the idea of using tools to assist and amplify their physical capabilities. While reading and writing were developed over 5,000 years ago to amplify intellectual capabilities, schooling for the masses is only a couple of hundred years old. During those 200+ years, we have made steady progress in developing brain tools—tools for educating and using our brains.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT), when used appropriately in conjunction with our progress in brain science, artificial intelligence, teaching, and learning, has the capability to make major changes in our educational system. Do what you can to help make sure that the changes that are occurring are for the better.

References and Resources (2015). Never stop learning. Class Central. Retrieved 10/21/2015 from Quoting from the website:

Class Central is an aggregator of MOOC course listings and continually looks for and brings you high-quality MOOCs from reputable providers (and not just from the major providers).

Hollands, F. & Tirthali, D. (May, 2014, pp. 87-89). MOOCS: Expectations and reality. Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education. Retrieved 10/21/2015 from (211 page report.)

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. HTML: Download a free Microsoft Word file from: Download a free PDF file from:

Moursund, D. (2015). Technology and problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/23/2015 from Download a free Microsoft Word file from: Download a free PDF file from:

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R., eds. (2015). Education for students’ futures. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free Microsoft Word file from: Download a free PDF file from:

Straumsheim, C. (4/2/2015). Surveying the MOOC landscape. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 10/24/2015 from

Wexler, E. (10/19/2015). MOOCs are still rising, at least in numbers. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 10/21/2015 from

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