Is There a Future for MOOCs?

How can students and business schools alike get the most out of MOOCs?

Educators should reconsider writing obituaries for Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. About five years ago, MOOCs were the next big thing. People were reacting to them as they are to data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning now. Some people are declaring MOOCs dead, but it’s premature. There’s still a place for them. We just have to change how we think of them.

To begin, we must understand MOOCs and their beginnings. For a while, some experts in higher education feared MOOCs would come to replace traditional programs in a number of subjects. After all, many courses are free and open to anyone who is interested. While some require people to participate at certain times, others allow for self-paced coursework. The convenience factor and lack of tuition seemed like a dream. No one wanted to be left out. Indeed, many business schools jumped aboard the MOOC train.

The Wharton School famously put its core courses online for free. MIT and Harvard teamed up to create edX, a platform for offering MOOCs that still exists today.

MOOCs were supposed to be the ultimate democratization of education. Of course, education has value in and of itself. But these free courses never had the rigor of traditional programs, especially because students could participate as little or as much as they’d like. Recruiters failed to see the value, so having a MOOC on one’s resume never meant that much.

Of course, the business plan – how to make money off this system – was never clear. The perception is that once hyped open online learning platforms are struggling. For instance, Forbes recently shared the story of Coursera, one of these online course hubs. The intro of the piece suggested that the company and its CEO no longer carry the weight they did when they were the darling of the industry.

But, Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda sees things differently. “I think MOOC mania has largely burned off and turned to MOOC despair in many quarters,” he says. “The fact is that online education is still taking off.” Coursera has 30 million users and raised hundreds of millions in venture funding, according to Forbes.

Yet traditional colleges and universities are not taking online education seriously enough. Already, some are writing off MOOCs. Certainly, these courses have not had the kind of success once anticipated. But traditional brick-and-mortar programs are facing their own set of challenges and MOOCs could be a solution.

“The people championing open online learning are of the mind that big discontinuous change across the postsecondary sector is not only possible, but necessary,” according to a recent article about the 2017 edX Global Forum. “They see open online education as one mechanism to leapfrog the barriers of tradition, inertia, and vested interests that have served to make higher education scarce.”

At this moment in time, all industries are looking for disruptors to shake things up. Education is no different. In “Impatient with Colleges, Employers Design Their Own Courses,” Wired magazine criticizes traditional institutions of higher education for being too slow. There’s no question that they are behind in teaching students the skills employers are demanding. Skills such as big data analytics and how to use AI effectively. Because of cumbersome bureaucracies, administrators are unable to make new courses or churn out knowledgeable students quickly enough to keep up with demand or the latest in technology.

Those limitations are precisely why universities have to pay attention to MOOCs. They need to break out of their old habits and start disrupting. Business schools should recognize this better than anyone. This does not mean that they should expect to be replaced by MOOCs as some once thought.


Instead, business schools and universities in general, should see MOOCs as a chance to efficiently address employer demands as they arise. The technology, after all, is flexible, more flexible than traditional means of education. Eliminating some of the red tape necessary to launch a course or program could also help schools become more responsive to employers.

In turn, students will be happy because they want these skills on their resume to make themselves more employable. Between 2014 and 2024, you can expect 1.8 million new jobs to be created requiring data and computer science credentials, according to CompTIA. Schools can’t move fast enough to incorporate these concepts into programs that already exist, never mind creating entirely new courses.

Some schools are using MOOCs as an initiator to create more traditional courses at a quicker pace. The platform and bones of a course are already available, so they use it as a head start. This is one way MOOCs could work to the advantage of business schools.

Another way is for business schools to use MOOCs as a way of evaluating prospective MBA students. The more information admissions teams can glean the better, and MOOCS can provide a unique way of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. In theory, depending on how successful applicants to a course perform on a particular MOOC, they could then skip certain modules once admitted onto the degree program.

Anyone who is mourning MOOCs need look no further than Alison, the first ever open online education platform. Its nearly 12 million registered students, 1.5 million graduates, and 1,000 free courses hardly seem irrelevant, according to Forbes

Alison founder and CEO Mike Feerick is a believer in providing a free education to anyone who wants it. He doesn’t think higher education should be only for the wealthy. Alison makes money through advertising and selling certificates, which are optional to purchase. While this model might not be the best for traditional business schools to follow, it does give them an option to consider.

If schools can figure out how to develop online course content more affordably, MOOCs can prove to be a good business decision. At the heart of MOOCs – providing free education to all – is a premise, which drives many educators to enter the profession. Finding the balance between these good intentions and being profitable is the perfect challenge for today’s business schools. Game on.  


*This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Please feel free to follow me to share your thoughts and comments.

Nunzio Quacquarelli

Nunzio is the founder and CEO of QS. Following completion of his own MBA from the Wharton School, he has gone on to become a leader in education management with over 25 years of experience in the industry. He is truly passionate about education and firmly believes in the QS mission to help young people to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development. 

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