Are We MOOC'd Out?

hands typing on the keyboard
hands typing on the keyboard

MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been around a few years. My company, Udemy, has been around since 2010. However, it wasn't until 2012 that MOOCs became the so-called next big thing.

Last November, The New York Times declared 2012 "The Year of the MOOC." And with that pronouncement came a pronounced backlash. Well, maybe "backlash" is too strong a word, but there is no doubt that once the hype cycle reached its zenith late last year, the rising chorus of voices declaring they are over MOOCs seemed to just keep getting louder.

Maybe it's the online education equivalent of the famous Sports Illustrated cover jinx, the urban legend that once someone makes the cover, his career will quickly decline or burn out spectacularly. Or maybe it's the polarizing nature of much of the coverage itself, which asserts that "higher education is on the edge of the crevasse" or "MOOCs will never replace schools or faculty teaching." These arguments we've seen made repeatedly and mostly land on one extreme or another. But as with many things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Maybe we are truly MOOC'd out. One piece of evidence: A reporter we were talking to about Teach2013, an initiative designed to encourage experts to share their knowledge online, declined to cover it solely because she was, in her words, "MOOC'd out."

So why would we be? One reason is the hype cycle I just mentioned. From the beginning, MOOCs have received more than their share of media attention and, yes, hype. The case gets made for them, and the case gets made against them, and then those cases get made over and over and over again. And eventually, people just get tired of it.

I think it's important to consider why we cared about them to begin with, which can be summed up in one word: hope.

We cared because we thought they could be the potential cure-all for a major issue -- education, or more specifically, the lack of affordable access to it -- that touches almost everybody, not only here in the U.S., but around the world. It gave us hope that there might at long last be a solution to the problem of providing everyone access to quality education.

So now that we're arguably on the other side of the hype cycle, should we still care? Yes, we should, and here's why:

The road to truly democratizing education is going to be a long one, and many things will have to change in order to meet all of the challenges we face in doing it. We have to tackle head-on the issue of education affordability. We have to tackle head-on the issue of education quality. Right now, we've only begun to scratch the surface of many issues and the many people who currently work to support the millions of students.

What's happening in online education is revolutionary. For the first time, people around the world have the opportunity to learn from real-world experts -- from professors, yes, but also from people who stand out in their fields, like Jack Welch or web developer Victor Bastos or yoga teacher Sadie Nardini.

Like with any other revolution, things will be bumpy. A lot of the MOOCs that exist now may be gone in a few years' time as business models and market conditions evolve. Nobody really knows which MOOC model will prove successful, and that's because it's not clear yet which model the incumbents -- schools, faculty, students, and course publishers -- will ultimately embrace. We don't know how these groups will participate, support and accelerate what's happening.

In the meantime, people who want to learn have never had available to them the wide variety of opportunities to do just that as they do right now. No matter where things end up with MOOCs, there is no question they have already provided wider access to education than anything that's come before. And whether or not you're tired of hearing about MOOCs, it's just the truth -- and it doesn't look like the momentum will slow anytime soon.

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