Has MOOC lived up to its expectations?

Taking a cue from the popular adage, ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’, companies that used to offer free education online are looking at alternative ways to keep going. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), gained popularity globally and in India over half a decade back for professionals and students, especially in engineering and technology, who found it difficult to upgrade their skills in the ever changing and disruptive world of technology.

However, since then many of the MOOC platforms have either scaled down, changed their business model or shut shop. So what changed?

Five years back, the domestic market witnessed the entry of several global companies such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and Khan Academy amongst several others to impart free, quality online education with no application process or costs. Most of these companies had tie-ups with top universities and Ivy League colleges and that enticed thousands of students and professionals who otherwise could not afford or have the time to to upgrade. MOOCs became the ultimate choice for such students, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medical ) field for short courses. It so happened that for Coursera, the world’s largest MOOC platform, India soon became the second largest market after the US.

But soon things started changing not only in India but also globally with MOOCs witnessing a decline in enrolment and in number of users. This forced MOOCs to pivot to MOOC 2.0 with freemium models, offering a mix of free and paid courses.

For example, if one signs up on Coursera, the user will be provided with a free trial-class post which there are few courses. However, if one wants to complete the course and get a certificate, then a fee is involved. The company kept the fee structure fairly low at about ₹2,000-7,000.

“Initially, the idea was to provide learning to everyone at no charge. However, in the last 4-5 years, we have changed to freemium model where users are charged if they want to take up the full course. While the whole ideology of MOOC was to provide free education, I would say that it has not failed but has evolved,” said Raghav Gupta, India Director, Coursera.

The company has also launched a B2B model where it has partnered with several large corporates for skill development of their employees. Gupta said that while the B2B is growing at 100 per cent, B2C is growing at 45 per cent and has over 1.1 million users in India.

Another reason why the MOOC platforms have in general failed to rise compared to the edu-tech startups that charge for every content, is the low retention rate and rising affluence among students, as per a latest MIT research paper. The paper explains why MOOCs largely fell short of transforming education worldwide and instead focus on helping colleges take their academic programmes online.

Aarthi Ramasubramanian – Senior Investment Manager, Gray Matters Capital edLABS told BusinessLine that MOOC cannot always be free to be sustainable. “For balancing the dichotomy of sustainability and access to all, businesses are looking at Freemium models with a layered approach. Different pricing mechanisms for basic, with assignments/grading, with certification or mentor-led levels of the same course are solving the problem.”

edX, another major player that was created by MIT and Harvard, and Udacity also have the same model.

MOOCs have taken different forms to keep engagement high, monetise for sustaining and staying relevant, she said adding that the they partnered with universities, created tiered approach, enterprise solutions for reskilling and upskilling to reinvent themselves.

India is still one of the largest countries in terms of MOOC learners, and MOOCs provide an efficient way to bridge Industry-University divide and upskilling for better opportunities.

While completion rates are still very low, are they really an effective metric to assess these online courses?

Most learners find value and gain knowledge by going through these courses, even if they don’t complete them. Any one MOOC is often not the only source of learning for an individual. One often resorts to multiple or supplemental courses, making the traditional success factors for such businesses irrelevant. MOOC has definitely played an important role in democratising education.

While MOOCs are a great way for professionals to get used to the idea of continuous learning, they seldom don’t graduate beyond that stage with this learning model and hence the increase in number of sign ups for MOOCs don’t tell the entire story, feel experts. More than 90 per cent of those who sign up for MOOC courses do not complete the courses and this throws up questions about the efficacy of the model.

According to Vineet Chaturvedi, Co-Founder, Edureka, an online education portal, “Motivation to complete the course, and immediate doubt resolution are learners’ needs which cannot be met by MOOCs and often this leads to drop offs. The biggest reasons holding back MOOCs, especially when it comes to technical training is the lack of interactivity and real-life projects which live, online learning model can easily provide. Although the MOOCs e-learning model is scalable, the low course-completion rates and low effectiveness do not make it a sustainable model.” .

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