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The Year That Followed The Year of the MOOC

My position on MOOCs is a confused one.

I believe that the current higher education model in the United States, with its high costs and questionable outcomes, is unsustainable. But at the same time I recognize that the industry has been criticized with high costs and questionable outcomes for years, if not decades, and it has continued to steamroll ahead as if untethered by any identifiable laws of physics or rationality. I also believe in disruptive business models and adhere to the tenant that innovation drives progress. So MOOCs, with disruption at their core and their “inside out” attempt at change, would serve as prime vehicles to challenge the status quo and instigate operational improvements throughout the industry.

But for every step forward by the MOOC surge – and admittedly there have been many – there have also been some pirouettes that leave me questioning how the movement will play itself out. The latest story about edX dropping its plans to connect students with employers after a failed experiment with 868 “high performance” students symbols yet another potential change in direction. With a great deal of investment required to build the technology platform and actually launch a MOOC, it was assumed that the money would be recouped on the “back end”, somehow monetizing the link between the proficient students who complete MOOCs and the hungry employers that want to hire them. Theoretically at some point the new investment into these disruptive businesses will slow down and MOOCs will need to fund themselves. But if edX, with over $60 million in investment a roster of the best and brightest university logos, can’t seem to make this work then where does the MOOC promise go from here?

And this update from edX comes not too long after MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor and CEO of Udacity, announced that in January students from around the world will begin taking classes for a computer science master's program being jointly offered by Udacity and Georgia Tech (sign up here). What’s interesting is that AT&T will actually be funding the development of the program and will, in return, get access to the talented group of students that will be certified upon completion. Yes this is a somewhat similar approach to what edX piloted, but the Udacity/GeorgiaTech/AT&T initiative is not a MOOC. It has the potential to be massive and it’s online, but it’s not open. With an upfront price tag of nearly $7,000 to enroll, this program will be, well, a "MOC". Is the MOC the older, smarter and more successful brother of the MOOC? Is this then the path forward: to take a MOOC that has proven the ability to scale (and lose money) and then drop an “O” to generate revenue?

If 2012 was “The Year of the MOOC” as trumpeted by the New York Times then 2013 could possibly be described as “The Year of the MOOC Pivot.” But since the ultimate impact of MOOCs is still largely unknown and we can’t be certain if what we’re seeing with some of these recent changes is really a pivot, then a more appropriate tag for 2013 might be “The Year That Followed The Year of the MOOC.” As was the case at the end of last year this story hasn’t been fully written yet so stay tuned in 2014 (or “The Year That Followed The Year That Followed…”) to see what happens. But one thing for sure is that we don’t have any more “O’s” to drop.

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