MOOC Leader EdX Turns One: What's Next?

Like anything in its infancy, massive open online courses like EdX are full of possibilities and promise. But their path is unpredictable.
 8 MOOCs Transforming Education
8 MOOCs Transforming Education
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EdX recently turned one year old. It gave itself a present: the full open-source release of its software platform.

We know what EdX officials wished for when they blew out the candles on the cake. But what do we wish for them? Like anything in its infancy, MOOCs are full of possibilities and promise, but their path is unpredictable.

I wish MOOCs had fewer problems. They can be just as flat and unengaging as a real-world lecture, maybe worse. We get dazzled by 150,000 people signing up, and forget that only 5% of them finish a class. Even the worst public schools do not suffer 95% dropout rates. That might not seem like a fair comparison; after all, communities make it harder to drop out of school. But MOOC students at least have gone through the process of registering for a class, so you would think they would want to complete it.

[ Massive open online courses pose some legal problems that traditional classes do not. Read MOOCs: Interesting Legal Territory Ahead. ]

I wish MOOCs were easier to build. It's one thing to have open-source platforms, quite another to do something valuable with them. I wrote about Eric Lander's biology MOOC, and came away daunted by the amount of work it took to build that class, doing things such as creating interactive breaks every 15 minutes to try to keep online students engaged.

I wish MOOCs really could replace school as we know it. The school board in the town where I grew up plugged a budget gap by shutting down the high school. I wished it could replace the physical high school with a virtual one. But we aren't really there yet.

I wish MOOCs would sharply cut the cost of higher education, including at the graduate level.

Given time, I might get all my wishes, plus get some things I haven't wished for. Or not. MOOCs are still so young it's almost impossible to say. As Howard Lurie, EdX's director of external relations, put it, "We're trying to lay track as the train is coming down behind us."

At some point, that track will be laid. Will the train derail? We don't yet know whether EdX or any of its non-profit or for-profit rivals can sustain themselves financially.

We don't even know what they'll be when they grow up. Right now "we're seeing a lot of players competing to be 'the platform' of education in the future," Michael B. Horn, cofounder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute, said in email interview.

They won't all be the platform. EdX might not want to be -- Lurie said that more than 300 institutions have approached it about partnering. It's working with the 27 that it felt were a good fit. Udacity is crafting a similar path of working with limited partners to develop effective courses. Meanwhile, Coursera and Instructure's Canvas clearly want to be the platform for the rest of us. But Khan Academy or a slew of other providers -- Knewton, EdModo, Sophia, others -- could emerge triumphant.

There might not be just one platform. The rise of choice in online education shouldn't be surprising. I interviewed Joe Cronin, founder of Edvisors, which markets financial services to students. He wondered why, in a world where we can walk into a grocery store and get 10 types of peanut butter and 50 types of cereal, "wouldn't we see that in education offerings?"

One reason we might not want that to happen: employers might decide too many choices are too difficult to filter, and they might decide to stick with hiring students with degrees from conventional schools. In the current market, where education increasingly dictates the kind of jobs people get, MOOCs might put students at a disadvantage. There have been Great Books courses and adult education courses and informal learning programs for decades. What if MOOCs become just another spin on that idea?

That's what makes Udacity's partnership with Georgia Tech to create an online master's degree in computer science the biggest move in the MOOC space this year, according to Horn. "It's very clearly disruptive, and with the brand name behind it, quite disruptive," he said.

Let's see what happens when that effort turns one, or maybe five. For now, happy birthday, EdX, and many more.