Massive open online courses (MOOCs) skyrocketed in popularity upon their emergence in the higher education market in recent years. A MOOC is an open access online class that is available to an unlimited population. They are often taught by professors who are well-known in their field of study, and the content presented is intended to be of the same quality as a traditional fee-based course.

A New York Times article named 2012 “the year of the MOOC” as several companies associated with prestigious universities began providing free, non-credit online courses. CourseraUdacity, and edX emerged as pioneers in  the appearance of MOOCs, backed by partnerships with MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford University, Columbia University, among many others. Popularity for MOOC platforms grew quickly – Coursera was able to reach 1.7 million people in the first year and half after it was founded. The initial draw to MOOCs  created a stir in the higher education industry, and colleges and universities grew increasingly concerned with how they could compete in this new educational space while their tuition continued to skyrocket. To add further anxiety to the higher education industry, many MOOCs also offered certificates of completion in the topic being taught. These certificates were offered on behalf of the instructor, not a college or university, but they drew a substantial preliminary following.


Now that a couple years have passed and the dust has settled, the industry is finding that MOOCs are not having as large of an impact on traditional learning institutions as originally thought. The MOOC system has pitfalls. Course dropout rates are high, plagiarism is common, and the time commitment is extensive. Since MOOCs often have enrollments in the thousands, instructor and student interaction is almost non-existent. The lack of support leaves many students unable to complete the course. With the ability to earn a certificate in the specialty topic, plagiarism became a common occurrence among students struggling with the course content and lack of instructor support.  To further complicate the situation, the level of quality in grading for a MOOCs course has been inconsistent, particularly for courses which do not offer content that can be run through an automatic grading platform.

On the other end of the spectrum, recent research has found that MOOC students are often highly educated adults who already hold an advanced degree, minimizing the competition with colleges and universities who are recruiting prospective learners interested in enrolling in credit-bearing programs.  Free, non-credit courses could be an attractive option to the busy professional interested in enhancing an established skill set, but the high caliber of the courses often requires a larger time commitment than a traditional non-credit enrichment course offered by a local college or university.

Although MOOCs have faced significant challenges, it is clear that they are having an impact on the higher education industry, even if not to the extent as originally predicted. Many MOOC platforms are attempting to adapt to the changing needs of the educational consumer.  Learners are becoming increasingly reliant and accustomed to digital technology. This had led to an uptick in the availability of online courses in the higher education industry. Many colleges and universities are integrating enhanced MOOC content into established curriculums. In return, MOOC platforms are attempting to draw the attention of learners interested in certificate options that are recognized in the industry being studied. Coursera and edx now offer verified certificates, which attempt to provide a “more meaningful certificate of completion” by allowing the student to share detailed course performance records. The impact of these certificates is still unclear, but the higher education industry will undoubtedly keep a close watch on the evolution of MOOCs.

Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) is a market research firm located in Syracuse, NY. RMS specializes in higher education market research assessments. For more information on conducting a market research project, contact Sandy Baker, Director of Business Development, at or by calling 1-866-567-5422.