Over the past year or so, The Research Bunker Blog has been tracking the development of massive online open courses (MOOCs) and their impact on higher education. Much has been written about the ups and downs of the course format during that time, and the future at this point is still very uncertain. In the midst of that uncertainty and some of the lingering concerns, a new piece in Inc.  entitled “Digital Education, Yes. MOOCs? Let’s Think it Through,” by Rita Gunther McGrath argues that it’s time to rethink the MOOC model and some of the (possibly dubious) assumptions that went into it.

Should we be rethinking MOOCs?

Should we be rethinking MOOCs?

McGrath points out that MOOC enrollments and completion levels have not met expectations and generally that MOOCs have failed to live up to the initial hype that surrounded them.  In that regard, she asserts that MOOCs suffer from the same underlying problems as many other new innovations that are embraced by entrepreneurs, namely (1) that they were launched based upon many untested assumptions, (2) overinvestment due to “Capital Market Myopia,” (3) lack of a clear business plan based upon realistic demand assessments, and (4) a lack of clarity about the problem(s) to which MOOCs represent a solution.

The points about MOOCs being based upon untested assumptions and un-validated expectations of demand are reminiscent of familiar issues that we in The Bunker observe too frequently as market researchers. We are sometimes approached by clients who want us to research why an offering that they already launched hasn’t been living up to their initial expectations. In many, if not most, of those cases, these clients admit that they didn’t do any preliminary feasibility research beforehand and went ahead with the initiative simply because there was “gut-level” belief in it within the organization. When we undertake projects like that, we often find that key initial assumptions about the size and composition of the key market segments were misjudged – or maybe not even thought through at all. That appears to have been the case with MOOCs. There was a sense that because the technology was available to deliver courses in a certain way, universities should begin doing so, without a lot of thought as to what the market potential might be.

Even more alarming is the extent to which universities may be harming their own economic futures by plunging headlong into MOOCs without a fully articulated plan of where they might make up the revenues lost. McGrath writes, “No one, even those who founded the major MOOCs, quite knows yet how they are going to make money. Giving away your core product and hoping to make up the difference using other revenue streams is risky–just ask the newspaper business.” As someone who worked in the newspaper industry from 1991 to 2003, that line struck a chord with me, personally. There are a lot of eerie similarities between what’s going on with MOOCs in higher education and the way that newspapers started giving away their previously paid content for free on the internet and then regretted that there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Ultimately, McGrath makes a conclusion about MOOCs similar to one we made in July 2013 when we speculated that MOOCs may be an evolutionary step to an ultimately different model, but the limitations on educational accessibility caused by constraints of time and money are very real and will addressed by some form of online education.  The Inc. piece cites some promising organizations that are working toward a “post-MOOC digital education model.” Regardless of how MOOCs or Post-MOOC alternatives evolve, the last four words in title of the Inc. article serves as good advice to educational institutions that are trying to adopt them: “Let’s think it through.”

Please feel free to comment below. What is your take on MOOCs? Should we be rethinking them?