Undoubtedly, there's a future for massive open online courses — or MOOCs, as they're more commonly known. I suspect that increased interest in online learning can be attributed, at least in part, to the surge in awareness and availability of MOOCs at institutions around the world.
If we look at MOOCs using Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen's disruptive innovation theory, we see that they are still in the very early stages of disrupting an established model. Typically, new products and services start out as fairly rough versions of their final forms, with a small potential use base, before going through a series of sustaining innovations that improve offerings.
There is much room for improvement when it comes to MOOCs, not the least in terms of learning design. But there also is a large body of experience in online learning that could be quite easily applied to MOOCs. Rapid technical advances offer new opportunities to combine large-scale delivery with small-scale social interactions, and I expect MOOCs to get much better.
My final reason for optimism about MOOCs' survival is that there is no other choice. In a maker culture where the barriers to content production are so low that anyone can contribute to the community, the result is that only the most esoteric and specialized knowledge domains can expect to charge a premium for content.
What's Next for MOOCs?
Increasingly, students are navigating alternative paths to learn about almost any subject. Such competition will likely lower course fees, potentially down to zero.
Business models are still being worked out, and it's not clear which will prevail. But, often, courses will be open. Open courses will not be the only option, however.
I fully expect that the possibilities for studying and learning on campus, face to face, will continue. I even expect that some MOOCs may require part of a course to be taken at a specific facility, perhaps to use special infrastructure or to engage in some other location-based activities.
Why It Matters
The key, of course, is assessment. In many cases, assessment becomes divorced from course delivery. In some cases, students complete a MOOC for free but later pay a fee for assessment. For self-learners, then, it won't matter whether they complete a MOOC or not. That will lead to a situation where students may choose to follow an open course of varying degrees of structure and design, or choose other methods of learning at a different pace. This will limit costs and maintain openness.
Eventually, the idea that higher education quality is about input, and that completion is a time-served model, will be removed. Instead, we will measure higher education in terms of student output, which can be achieved at a learner's own pace. Whatever happens, open courses will be a key part of how we will learn in the future.