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Report: MOOCs Attracting More Paying Customers

If anybody stays on top of the massive open online course segment, it's Class Central, a search engine that taps into every MOOC platform. Recently, it issued its annual review of MOOC stats and trends, and the information exposes how this form of online learning is evolving from a technology expected to disrupt higher education to one that generates revenue with tiered services targeted to lifelong learners.

Eight hundred-plus universities are part of the MOOC movement, wooing some 78 million students to their online classes, according to Class Central CEO Dhawal Shah. However, there were fewer first-time MOOC students taking free classes in 2017 than in 2016 — 20 million vs. 23 million. One reason, suggested Sha, is that there's a rise in the number of paying users. For example, leading MOOC platform Coursera, with 30 million users, saw a 70 percent increase in paying customers in 2017, while Udacity had 50,000 students paying to enroll in its nanodegree programs.

"As the MOOC platforms continue their quest for sustainable revenue models," the report stated, "MOOC providers have begun charging not just for certificates and other credentials, but for access to content." The free courses serve as a "marketing channel" to steer students "into other higher priced products." Class Central estimated that the potential revenue from online degree programs delivered through MOOC platforms "now exceeds $65 million."

The site has identified six "tiers" of monetization:

  • Free;
  • Certificate;
  • Microcredential;
  • Credit;
  • Online degree; and
  • Corporate training.

Nowadays, the more attention a student wants, the more it costs. Coursera, for instance, has begun putting "graded assignments behind paywalls." Udacity "seems to have given up on the whole concept of free and is aggressively moving towards monetizing content." EdX is the exception: Class Central noted that while it hosts courses for pay, "it remains the only platform that still offers most of its courses for free." (However, students who want to earn certificates need to pony up for those.)

The number of credentials available has grown to 500 currently, according to Shah. In fact, many, if not most, of the new courses introduced in 2017 were part of credential programs, whether they were called specializations (Coursera), professional education, MicroMasters, XSeries or professional certificates (edX), programs (FutureLearn) or nanodegrees (Udacity).

Some universities have begun using MOOCs to deliver online or blended degrees. While Georgia Tech worked with Udacity to pioneer this movement in 2013 with a computer science master that now has some 6,000 students enrolled, the institution also announced a deal with edX to deliver an online master of science in analytics, beginning in 2017. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched a master's degree in accounting on Coursera last year to go along with degrees in business and data science. And MIT continued its MicroMaster program, which offers an accelerated route to a master's degree by bringing a cohort of students in its supply chain management program onto campus this year after they successfully completed MOOC courses on edX. In one form or another, that edX MicroMaster concept has since expanded to Columbia, Rochester Institute of Technology and several other universities.

The most popular courses are a bit trickier to tally. Class Central runs a "MOOC tracker" that allows visitors to specify their interest in a given MOOC whether or not they ever register. The site uses that tracker to tally what's most interesting to people. The No. 1 class is "Startup School," chosen by 27,616 "interested students" as of mid-February. It's not offered on one of the leading MOOC platforms; rather it's delivered by the same organization that created the content: Y Combinator.

To get an idea of the most popular courses based on daily enrollment, you have to dig up the information on specific MOOC platforms. For example, for 2017, Coursera said its most popular course was "Machine Learning," offered by Stanford University, followed by "Neural Networks and Deep Learning," from and "Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects" from the University of California San Diego. At edX the top three courses in 2017 were "TOEFL Test Preparation: The Insider's Guide," a self-paced class from ETSx; "IELTS Academic Test Preparation" from the University of Queensland, also self-paced; and "Essential Statistics for Data Analysis using Excel," from Microsoft.

Class Central's complete 2017 trends report is available on its website.

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