Are MOOCs Forever?

July 14, 2016

This is the latest episode of our new podcast series on the future of higher education. You can subscribe in iTunes, to get prior and future episodes.

Think back to the early days of MOOCs. Professors at Stanford and Harvard and other places were suddenly teaching really big classes, free. Hundreds of thousands of students at once were in those courses. It was an unprecedented giveaway of what had traditionally been the most expensive education in the world.

Back then, I met several students who were binging on the courses the way you might binge-watch a season of your favorite show on Netflix. They took as many courses as they possibly could, powering through and finishing as many as 30 courses in a year. When I asked why they were in such a hurry, the most popular reason was that they thought it was all too good to last. As one of those binging students told me, "I’m just afraid this whole thing might end soon." Surely, universities would change their mind about this, or the start-ups working with colleges might lock things up.

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Fast forward to last month, when Coursera did something that stirred up all of those concerns again. On June 30 the company deleted hundreds of its earliest courses, as part of a shift to a new software platform. Reaction, as you might expect, was negative on social media and blogs. One programmer called it cultural vandalism.

To be fair, many of the courses will actually be brought back on the new platform. For the company, the reason to upgrade was a philosophical shift, to offering courses that start on demand rather than just once or twice a year, as their early courses did. Coursera said it had found that completion rates were just better when people could start at their own convenience, but the episode did raise continuing concerns about the future of MOOCs. Will the free courses really stick around, and do MOOCs have staying power?

Hello, and welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning Podcast. I’m Jeff Young, and I recently had the chance to talk with Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, about those issues. We sat down at the EdTechXEurope conference, in London.

First, a quick program note. This is a special bonus episode of our podcast, since we’re on summer break between seasons. We’ll be back on a more regular schedule starting in the fall.

Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

Q. Daphne, thank you for joining us today.

A. Thank you, Jeff.

Q. Obviously, MOOCs are a different conversation today than they were a few years ago. I’m curious. Some people out there are sort of like, "See. I told you so. The hype wasn’t as big." I know you were never the one saying a lot of the hype anyway, so.

A. That’s right.

Q. How would you describe the narrative now? What are MOOCs today, and where are they heading? What’s the arc of, maybe, what’s been learned from the early days, and where things are going?

A. Yeah. I found the hype in the early days to be somewhat laughable, and as well as the trough that came afterward. The first year was, "Oh, MOOCs are going to put universities out of business," which we never aimed for, nor endorsed. Twelve months later, it’s like, "Universities are still around. You fail." OK. Both of these were ridiculous points of view. I think what we’re seeing right now is that what we’re doing is providing access to an amazing educational experience, to a lot of people who, for diverse reasons, don’t have the opportunity to benefit from it. That includes people in developing countries, who might not have a well-established educational system, but also includes people like you and me, who want to learn something new, or need to learn something new because the skills that we need for our job have changed, and we’re not going to get a chance to go back to school.

Q. I have to ask. There was something I just saw in the last couple days about a little bit of grumbling about a change that Coursera’s making about some of the old original MOOCs, a large number, I think, of courses that are being taken down. You guys are making a change to the platform. Is this right, and what is your response to people who are complaining that this free resource that was there for a long time is going away?

A. First of all, there is a misunderstanding here. A lot of these courses will be migrated to the new platform. They just haven’t been yet, partly because there’s some changes that need to be made to the format to make them live on the new platform. We’re really excited about the new platform because, unlike the old one, where the courses were only live once or twice a year, here the courses are live all the time, so you can start the class pretty much every two weeks. There’s a new cohort launching, so that’s why we made that change.

Ramin Rahimian, The New York Times, Redux

Q. I know what you mean about some of the courses. They would be online sometimes and not online other times, effectively because if it wasn’t going, then you couldn’t look at it.

A. Yeah. Exactly, and now all courses are going to be going pretty much all the time, so yes, there’s a few hundred courses that we haven’t migrated yet. Most of those, not all of them, but most of them will be migrated soon.

Q. Most. OK.

A. Yeah. Some of them are obsolete, so for instance, if you taught a technology or a biology class three years ago, things have changed, and if the professor hasn’t had the time to update it, you probably don’t want it still up there. There’s some courses that will go away, but most of them will be migrated to the new platform.

Q. Yeah. I guess you’ve been around long enough that these are some of the interesting issues that end up coming up, like archiving. What is the appropriate role for the university and for Coursera to play in keeping things, and when do you refresh? Is there a commitment, or do you find yourself now thinking to make it more clear to people about what the guidelines are for you, about how long you keep something up, and when you refresh it or take it down?

A. I think that’s obviously largely up to the instructor. You can’t force somebody to update a course unless they want to, and the same way they can’t force someone to update a textbook unless they want to. It’s very similar in that respect. For courses that are very high demand, and where we actively solicit it for the university, that we provide resources to support in the creation, we do try and establish expectations on a reasonably frequent update schedule with the instruction. Again, if they say, No, I can’t do it, there’s still nothing you can do.

Q. What do you see for Coursera as the biggest challenge now? You’ve probably solved some, and new ones crop up. What is on your mind these days?

A. I think there’s still an awareness challenge. Even today, there was a Pew center study that shows, I think, that only 20 percent of professional Americans, so people who would be in our target demographic, only 20 percent are aware of MOOCs. I guess the other 80 percent don’t read The Chronicle of Higher Ed, or The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. I think it’s, how do you get to those people? Even more so, how do you get to those people in countries outside of the United States, where awareness is even lower, to let them know that this opportunity exists for them?

Q. I guess that is a question, because I obviously like people to read us and to read these other esteemed publications, but there’s other things that people do. Have you done bus ads, or are you thinking of other ways to get at people who have different media habits? How do you reach people who may benefit from MOOCs but not know about them?

A. That’s a really great question, and we now, only about a year and a half ago, we finally hired a marketing person who was thinking about this full time. We didn’t have one in the early days, but we have some partnerships that I think are really exciting. For instance, the one with Times Internet of India. They do billboards, and ads in traditional newspapers, including newspapers that our typical demographic hasn’t been reading, and so this was reaching out into a whole new demographic. I think that’s one direction. We’re doing partnerships with governments on work-force development. We found the ones that we’ve had, for instance, in Singapore, to be hugely impactful, both on the learners, but also on the work-force development needs in the country. I think that those are new channels that we’re exploring to reach new populations.

Q. There’s been a lot of talk about MOOCs as an experiment because you have these large student populations that have never been gathered before. At this point, now that it’s been a few years, what’s the most interesting or important thing you’ve learned from the MOOCs?

A. I think what we learned is the extent to which, once you have learners or students who know their own mind, what they’re looking for is so very different than the kind of experience that we’ve been providing on campus. They’re looking for shorter, more-to-the-point modules of knowledge. They’re looking for things that have direct relevance to problems that they’re trying to solve, and I think one of the transformations that we see when talking to instructors is first the realization that you can’t teach your MOOC students the same way you teach your on-campus students, because your MOOC students are going to just walk away and not complete the course.

They come to a point of view, it’s like, "OK, my campus students are different from my MOOC students." The next stage of their evolution is like, "No, they’re not actually different." It’s just that the MOOC students have the option to walk away, whereas your on campus students don’t, and maybe what we should be providing to our on campus students is actually more like what we’re providing to our MOOC students.

Q. That’s really interesting, and do you find that bleeding back into the college courses?

A. Absolutely. In fact, I think that we’re catalyzing an important transformation. There has long been this narrative around how universities are not providing the skills that employers feel they need in their incoming employees, but that communication channel has been hard to develop. How do you, as a university professor, learn what it is that industry really needs? Interestingly, by teaching the MOOC, you actually learn what people who are actively employed are looking for as part of their education. We also create direct relationships between top universities and top employers, so you now have that feedback loop that can help us make university teaching more relevant.

Q. One of the curious things is, you’ve had a growth of courses. A lot of universities have joined, and how many partners do you have now?

A. 145.

Q. That’s a lot of universities.

A. Teaching in 10 different languages, which is pretty cool.

Q. Are people building more courses? Are colleges that did a few courses to start off, have they learned that they’re largely happy with that amount, and keep that, or are they growing the number, or shrinking? What is the experience of your partners?

A. It varies. Most partners have produced a steady stream of courses that is maybe three, four, five new ones every year, where an instructor raises his or her hand, and is excited about the reach that this kind of opportunity gives them. We have a number of partners, I would say around 20 to 30, that have really embraced this deeply, and are now viewing this as a huge distribution channel for them in a variety of different ways, whether it’s to attract new students, whether it’s as a revenue generator, whether it’s as part of the online degrees that we’ve started to offer, and those are the ones that are really prolific contributors. Some of those are U.S. institutions, like U. Penn is an example, Michigan, University of Illinois, Stanford, but there’s also others, like UNAM in Mexico, or EPFL in Switzerland, the University of London, right here in the U.K., are all incredibly prolific producers of MOOCs and very high quality.

Q. Let’s talk for a minute about your own story. You were obviously an accomplished researcher before your interest in education technology happened at all, or your involvement in it, and you had won a MacArthur grant for your AI research. Do you ever look up and think, "How did I end up doing this?"

A. Yeah. Especially in the early days, it felt somewhat surreal. People used to ask me, "How are you feeling about your new life?" I used to say that it feels like the main character in the movie Being John Malkovich. It’s like I’m in someone else’s life. It’s not my life, but it’s kind of cool, so I’m going along with it. It’s a very different life, but it has very different opportunities for impact, and so I’m glad that I was able to play this role in catalyzing what I think is a huge transformation in education.

Q. Yeah, and you didn’t go back to Stanford, which I know that at the beginning, it was like, take a leave from Stanford, and go start this and maybe it’ll work out. Now you’re doing this. Do you ever think that in the future, you’ll be back to doing research, or is it not a thing you’re thinking about right now?

A. I think one of the things I learned through my Coursera journey is that you never know what the future might bring. If you’d asked me five years ago what I’d be, which is just before Coursera started, would I be doing this, it’s like, "No. I’m a Stanford professor." You don’t know what the future brings.

Q. Great. Thanks again for talking with us today. I really appreciate catching up.

A. Great. Thank you. Thanks, Jeff. Good to see you again.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at

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