What is the future of massive open online courses? Will MOOCs change the ways that traditional universities teach? Will they change where and how people learn? Will they change the costs for people to learn? And who will learn, and at what stage or stages of their lives they engage with education…?

These were some of the questions asked, and somewhat answered, at the recent 5th annual Coursera Partners Conference in the lofty (literally, more later!) setting of Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Why was I there?

I was there, as was my Coursera MOOC instructor colleague Professor Dale Whittington, to learn more about what MOOCs mean for traditional university strategies and practices, and if possible also to try to find out what might be the future of our two MOOCs on water and sanitation – MOOCs that we’ve now, for better or worse, invested years of our lives helping to produce…

Partly I wanted to catch up with what has changed in the world of (Coursera) MOOCs since I presented at a Coursera conference two years ago. I also really wanted to understand why our learner numbers for our two water policy MOOCs seem to be so down from where they were three years ago. Basically, when we launched our Part 1 water policy MOOC in May 2014 we had about 17,000 learners sign up from around 190 countries. 10,000 learners were active and over 1,000 completed the final assignment. Our current cumulative numbers, after launching Part 2 and re-launching Part 1 back in January/February of this year, and a few waves of monthly enrolments, are only about 850 learners across both of the two MOOCs…

OK, it seems MANY more MOOCs are now available…

One of my suspicions for this change was addressed at the Coursera conference. The selection of MOOCs from which learners can now choose has expanded enormously in the three years since 2014, when we first dipped our toes in the world of (Coursera) MOOCs. Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founder, showed this slide about this at the conference:

Photo: Daphne Koller showing the number of courses available over time on the Coursera platform.

In May 2014 our course would have been one choice among about 180 other courses – and it would have been one of very few with ‘water’ in the title. By 2017 our two MOOCs are now mixed amongst another 2,000 courses, with 22 other courses to choose from if you keyword search for ‘water’.

Over the same time period the number of learners on Coursera has grown significantly though, from say 8 million to probably close to 25 million:

Photo: Daphne Koller showing learner growth on the Coursera platform.

You might then expect our learner numbers not to have dropped too much, right? I think one issue here, as alluded to in data from Coursera CEO Rick Levin, is the number of annual active learners on the platform. This is closer to 6 million (the trend for ‘active’ learners was not shown, sadly):

Photo: Coursera’s Rick Levin showing the number of active learners on Coursera, and how many are taking paid courses.

The number of current annual active learners is a little under 6% of the total people who’ve registered/enrolled on Coursera, presumably since it started in 2012:

Photo: Rick Levin presenting Coursera data on learner enrolments.

We seem to be in the ‘long tail’ of (Coursera) MOOCs!

The current annual active learners are also probably far more likely to be taking very career focused courses in business-related skills, tech skills and so on. Courses like ours now seem to be in a kind of ‘long tail’ of free MOOCs on the Coursera platform. Perhaps this means they are not as well advertised. Perhaps it means they are no longer highly sought after anymore… on this specific platform… but who knows?

Rick Levin did show some fascinating data that a small number of university ‘partners’ are now generating ‘significant revenue’ from paid MOOCs. I would again guess these are concentrated in business/tech/skills Specializations (related sequences of MOOCs) and fully online Degrees:

Photo: Rick Levin showing some revenue estimates for selected Coursera partner universities, from paid courses.

Has Coursera become more ‘corporate’?

These opening talks by Daphne Koller and Rick Levin were a definite change in tone and tempo for me as compared to the Coursera conference I attended back in March 2015. Then I came away inspired and invigorated up by all the ‘maverick’ MOOC instructors I met, having presented and talked with academics who’d committed much time and energy to provide high quality courses for free to whomsoever wanted to take them. Here and now in 2017 I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything seemed now far more ‘corporate’ and commercial…

People from various universities I spoke to also seemed to notice this change. Daphne Koller did continue to promote the traditional Coursera mantra, albeit with less prominence to ‘universal access’ to the world’s best education than I recall from 2015 (you can still find that wording on Coursera’s About page, and for its laudable Coursera for Refugees initiative):

Photo: Daphne Koller showing Coursera’s mission statement.

I always knew Coursera was a for-profit venture that would have to find its revenue stream, so I guess this day had to come. Decisions about partnering with Coursera for our water MOOCs were also taken at our University level, not by me as an instructor at any rate, so it’s not like I had much influence here on the platform strategy to pursue.

Nevertheless it was interesting that fellow conference attendees hinted that their universities were now viewing Coursera as just one possible platform for their courses among a portfolio of others, including those that have seemingly kept more strategic emphasis on ‘free’ courses (e.g. FutureLearn). Clearly this is an ecosystem of overlapping, sometimes competing, educational platforms. There is choice and diversity out there, and strategies and counter-strategies are being followed. Within all this, I guess there’s no reason why Coursera cannot find its own particular path… I’ve no problem with that.

Big data and AI TAs could drive massive scale education

In fact it may also be that being more ‘corporate’ or ‘commercial’ allows Coursera to have the resources – and will – to innovate in some interesting directions as it explores what can be done in the massive scale, online education space. I think it’s fair to say there was plenty of evidence of this kind of strategy at the conference; and I include here the invited keynote by Professor Ashok Goel:

Photo: Professor Ashok Goel presenting about AI teaching assistants, and learners, at the 2017 Coursera Partners Conference.

Professor Goel spoke about the need for artificial intelligence (AI) systems to support better learners to higher levels of attainment within massive scale education environments. In these kinds of contexts providing human one-on-one interaction would be too expensive, or suitable, trained resources simply would never be available. People instead are now developing AI teaching assistants – and even virtual students that take a class one year then progress on to become the virtual TA for the next year’s class! There’s a TEDx talk by Professor Goel about all of this, so I won’t repeat details here; instead, if you’re interested, please watch the link below:

I do find the fact that Coursera has strategically – and early on – geared up its systems to accommodate a ‘big data’ learning approach to how learners learn fascinating. Some of their so-called ‘next gen’ software approaches to guiding learners through mathematical and scientific equations, and computer programming language tasks is remarkable. It may be a serious threat to classroom teaching of subjects like maths, economics, and physics. Coursera seemed to be working on ways to discern intelligently and advise learners about common mistakes in their equations and programming. This all comes from an evolving, machine learning dataset of thousands of current and prior learners who work through the same problems. The rapid, ‘one'(AI)-to-one feedback made possible by this approach, in real-time to students working on problems, may eventually provide a (much) better learning experience than classroom teaching assistants could ever do – particularly for large class sizes, and fairly standardised or foundational topics.

Data science in MOOC design and in popular MOOCs

It was also clear from various presenters at the conference that this kind of ‘data science’ approach is not only informing the design and evolution of MOOCs, but is also perceived to be one of the big career opportunities globally. For instance there are various MOOCs on Coursera that can train you to become a ‘data scientist’. Two of the keynote speakers also mentioned the ‘sexy’ career of the ‘data scientist’. One of them was prominent investing advisor, Michael Moe. His talk was about linking ‘talent’ to these kinds of current and future ‘jobs’ through ‘learning’ platforms like Coursera:

Photo: Michael Moe presented a very tech/data scientist careers view of the future at the Coursera conference.

So what is the future of MOOCs?

My ‘future of MOOCs’ vision from this conference ended up quite mixed. Coursera’s view was quite clear, and can be seen in Rick Levin’s slide below. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that Coursera’s vision is evolving and emerging over time, as they progressively explore the space. As of 2017 they appear to have a ‘blended’ vision of traditional universities and MOOCs co-existing, with more opportunities than threats, as universities can think about – and can partner with Coursera on – all the emerging ‘content’ expansion possibilities:

Photo: The future of traditional universities, vis-a-vis MOOCs, by Rick Levin.

At the same time Rick Levin inadvertently rammed home to me that such a vision can have a dark flipside. This was because one of the ‘exciting’ new announcements at the conference was that Coursera’s third ‘fully online’ Masters will actually be a direct competitor to a course that I, and many of my colleagues, teach on!

Our programme is ‘innovation management and entrepreneurship‘; the new Coursera offering from HEC Paris is on ‘innovation and entrepreneurship‘:

Photo: Rick Levin announcing Coursera’s next ‘fully online’ Masters course… which turned out to be a direct competitor to a classroom course I teach on!

From an international student’s point of view, this new online Degree could be a real threat to our classroom course. For starters, the tuition fees for the two offerings seem to be more or less equivalent. Then the online course might save students having to spend on living costs, leaving their current job, being away from home and family, and having to navigate student visa issues!

The other major MOOC-related ‘future’ trend was the strong consensus at the conference that ‘lifelong learning’ will be an ever-increasingly important component of people’s lives. Michael Moe presented two slides on this, showing an ‘old system’ of learning and the ‘new system’ of ‘lifelong learning’ (and job churn). He, and others, stressed that the ‘new system’ will need to be supported by more than just the on-campus offerings of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, with far more of a role for part-time, flexible, available-at-any-time online education:

Photo: Michael Moe showing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ systems of learning lifecycles.

What else did I learn about MOOCs…?

Elsewhere in the conference I attended a session on developing MOOCs that have ‘social impact’ – a subject very close to home given the topic of our water MOOCs.

For Coursera ‘social impact’ was conceived as ranging from taking an ‘inclusive’ approach to MOOC development, to engaging learners in local – and eventually global – ‘impact’ tasks relevant to them, to ‘reaching unique groups’ (like refugees in ‘learning hubs’ in specific parts of the world):

Photo: A session on ‘social impact’ from MOOCs at the conference.

The chair of this session, Talia Kolodny from Coursera, has a blog post with more on this, and an ‘inclusive’ MOOC design YouTube video. In this session I also heard about ‘action teaching‘ from Professor Scott Plous’ and his award-winning online courses, like the ‘day of compassion‘ project.

Separately there was a plenary session led by Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea from the University of Edinburgh. One of my PhD students has actually done fieldwork comparing the Edinburgh and Manchester approaches to MOOCs, so it was fascinating to hear the Principal of Edinburgh describe the vision and stats behind their online/distance education accomplishments to date:

Photo: Sir Timothy O’Shea presented about MOOCs in Edinburgh.

He showed one slide that, as at January 2017, claimed the University of Edinburgh has attracted 1.7 million unique MOOC learners, has had 13.2 million MOOC video views, and has made 800 video lectures across 40 MOOCs that involved 121 academics and 118 teaching assistants!

Finally… a bit about Boulder!

Roger has previously chastised me about posting ‘holiday snap’ type articles here on Waterstink. So he’ll be happy to see that I’ve left the more aesthetic aspects of this trip until this final section (which I’m sure he would say, you are now free to skip!).

Nevertheless it’s worth quickly mentioning that by attending this conference I had my first ever view of the (edge of the) Rocky Mountains from Boulder, including the Flatirons:

Photo: A hotel window view of the Flatirons, Boulder, CO, USA.

I thought that the conference venue – the campus of CU Boulder – was lovely. The pre-conference reception was also held at one of the biggest sports stadiums I’ve ever seen:

Photo: Part of the lovely campus at CU Boulder, CO, USA.
Photo: Sports ground visible from the Champions Center at UC Boulder.

I was sadly very unprepared for the high altitude of Boulder – some ~5,400 ft (~1,650 m) and got a little giddy on several of the days. (We met a local blogger on the trip whose ‘helpful hints‘ would have been good to follow, had I planned ahead!)

Lastly, as a LEAF driver myself, I was happy to see that the general Boulder/Denver area seemed to be quite ‘electric vehicle’ (EV) friendly. I saw quite a few Nissan LEAFs, some Teslas and so on. All told, the LEAF is a fairly inoffensive car, so I was very amused by the plate I saw on this one:

Photo: ‘B1GDAWG’ indeed! Not the typical ‘plate’ you see on a Nissan LEAF, that’s for sure!

All in all, it was a very interesting and worthwhile trip. I feel I learned a lot about MOOCs and where they are heading. I gained some insight into the sustainability of our own water MOOCs. I even found out about new challenges to our university’s classroom-based degrees from other people’s MOOCs, which I’m not sure I would have learned about otherwise!

Duncan Thomas

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