Moocs facing the challenge of the new generation of course providers

In the summer of 2011, two professors made one of Stanford University’s most popular courses available for free online. The course,, has attracted more than 160,000 students.

Ten years later, most people considering an MBA will be familiar with Massive Open Online Courses, or Moocs, as they and their providers are known. Stanford’s early classes spawned companies such as Udacity, which now has 14 million users, and Coursera, which was valued at $4.3 billion when it went public last year.

These purely digital providers allow students to choose a cheaper online MBA instead of an expensive campus degree – or take a number of more specialized short courses online. In short, business education has broken away from traditional business schools, a development spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, which has normalized remote learning and working.

According to Carrington Crisp, an education consultancy, 79% of employers now believe online learning will be the norm for professional development, while more than a third of employees would consider an online MBA rather than the online version. face to face.

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And, in a tight job market where workers are rethinking what they demand from their careers and skills, online course providers are themselves forced to offer more.

Andy Hancock, the new chief executive of the FutureLearn platform, says there is an “opportunity” for online course providers as prospective students see beyond MBAs as a way to gain business know-how . But the Moocs will only be able to understand it if they ensure that what they offer is aligned with good pedagogical principles.

“Moocs need to step up,” says Hancock. “As an industry, to be sustainable, we need to do more. . . The evolution of Moocs is about retaining engagement and lifelong learning, and being the platform of choice. »

As learner demand grows, large-scale course providers are competing with new companies that claim to be able to offer more targeted and bespoke solutions.

“I think Moocs are dead,” says Tom Adams, chief executive and co-founder of the Quantic School of Business and Technology, which touts its offerings as more interactive and group-based than courses taken by thousands of students. people at a time. “They’re the zombies of the industry,” says Adams.

He says large-scale online business courses simply move lectures to the Internet, doing nothing to add interactivity or teamwork.

As a result, he argues, they fail to engage learners. “Imagine I design a program that has hundreds of hours of passive video lectures,” he says. “Do you think people can watch them and not give up?”

Quantic is among the companies that are competing with larger scale online providers in a lucrative market.

The company says its goal is to “democratize high-level business education” with an accelerated 13-month curriculum and classes of 150-200 students who collaborate on case studies, group projects and events.

Some of them take place virtually, others in person. Rather than watching didactic filmed lectures, students participate in interactive activities and small modules with regular commentary, Adams says.

“We learn by being challenged, by getting feedback, by discussing different beliefs – it’s a very learning-oriented approach . . . Pedagogy is basically what we do.

Entrepreneur Elspeth Briscoe also believes that more active and specialized courses are the future of lifelong career development in business and beyond.

His company, Learning with Experts, connects students who take his online courses, so they can exchange feedback and support each other.

“One of the things that’s in our company’s DNA that isn’t in Moocs is the absolute obsession with user experience,” she says. “It is important that people interact. It is a discursive environment.

After initially selling directly to consumers, Learning with Experts is now growing its revenue through partnerships with businesses and government agencies that want to build worker skills. Courses range from gardening with the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society to start-up finance, which is funded by the EU Regional Development Fund and has reached 1,000 small businesses in Cornwall.

“It’s a very important area and a big void in the market, with the [UK] government policy for the upgrading and development of SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises],” she says. “I think what we’re doing is really different.”

Adams also thinks these types of courses — focused, succinct, and interactive, with both online and offline elements — can complement more traditional business training rather than push it aside. Undergraduate degrees, for example, remain a rite of passage.

“We’re not trying to destroy anything — we work in partnership with universities,” he says. “Our feeling is that students want access to quality learning in many ways. »

Mark Thomas, associate dean of international graduate programs at Grenoble Ecole de Management, says large online courses are still great for learning specific skills — like baking Madeleines, which he learned to make via YouTube, but not at a level that would land him a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

“It opens up education,” says Thomas. “But it’s richer and it’s deeper and it’s more rewarding when you can have deeper face-to-face interaction.”

During the confinement, Grenoble spent 1.5 million euros on a system called HyFlex, which allows face-to-face teaching in the classroom while some students watch and participate at home. This allowed the school to adapt to Covid rules in France which required only half of the pupils to be in class at any given time.

But, while Thomas appreciates the flexibility offered by the system, it raises some dilemmas when students ask for remote work – even though, in his opinion, they would thrive better in the collegial atmosphere of the classroom.

He thinks university staff have, for a century, viewed distance learning – whether in the form of correspondence courses in the 1920s or online courses today – as a “monster under the bed”. which could completely replace face-to-face teaching. Historically, these fears have proven largely unfounded, and Thomas believes they will continue to be so.

“In fact, the pandemic has told us how much we love being around people and how important that is,” he says.

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