Will COVID-19 Lead to Another MOOC Moment?

Mar 25, 2020

Large-scale courses known as MOOCs were invented to get free or low-cost education to people who could not afford or get access to traditional options. But in recent years they had faded from the public spotlight, and more of the content was put behind paywalls.

However, as COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented shift to online teaching at colleges around the world, students and colleges are looking with renewed interest at the format.

Duke University was one of the first institutions to draw on MOOCs in response to the novel coronavirus. The university runs a campus in China, where its leaders shifted all teaching online on February 24 in response to the spread of infections there.


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Duke has long built MOOCs through its partnership with Coursera, a major platform for large-scale courses, and it also had previously negotiated an arrangement with Coursera to make all of the certificate programs and courses in Coursera’s library available to all of Duke’s students (in the U.S. or in China), said Noah Pickus, Duke’s associate provost, during a live discussion Tuesday co-hosted by EdSurge.

“So if we had a faculty member who has to do chemistry lectures and has never worked in this environment, rather than have him or her record an hour-and-a-half lecture four days a week, there might be high-quality, six-minute lectures that you can find in a Coursera course and repurpose,” Pickus said. “Mostly it was a way of repurposing and mashing up available materials with what we had already.”

As the virus spread to the U.S., Coursera decided to expand free access to a wider audience, for a limited time, so that they can make use of MOOC content in their teaching. On March 12, the company announced that any other college impacted by the coronavirus, even if they aren’t a partner of the company, can request free access to Coursera’s catalog of 3,800 courses for the impacted college’s students.

Hundreds of colleges around the world have taken Coursera up on the new offer, said Arunav Sinha, head of global communications for the company. In the past few days the company has approved free access for 550 colleges in 120 countries, he adds, and it is still processing other valid requests.

“We made this available free of cost up to July 31,” he adds. “If the disruption continues, we might just extend it as well.”

Other MOOC providers are making similar offers.

Udacity, for instance, today announced that it would make all of its so-called nanodegree programs, which are technology courses delivered in a MOOC format, available for free for one month to help students looking to develop new skills in response to COVID-19. “At the moment, what’s coming next in their professional lives remains unclear for far too many,” said Udacity’s CEO, Gabe Dalporto, in a statement.

Access to Udacity courses typically costs $399 per month, and officials say that it is possible to finish a nanodegree in a month if someone devotes, as the company’s statement puts it, “more than average weekly commitment” to the courses—which people may have time to do if they are suddenly laid off or unable to get to a job due to the COVID-19 virus.

On March 17, the nonprofit MOOC provider edX, which was founded by MIT and Harvard University, began making much of its course catalog and certificate programs free to its college partners, through what it calls the Remote Access Program.

It is up to each college to decide whether or not its courses can be shared freely through the program, said Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX, in an interview with EdSurge.

Agarwal said that “many” of the 140 partner colleges have opted in, and that the program has led to a “significant” uptick in enrollments in edX courses and programs, though he would not share numbers.

More than Viral

Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central, a site that serves as a directory of MOOCs, says he’s seen a sudden spike in traffic to his site, and social media links to articles he has written in the past such as “Here are 450 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free.”

One day last week, for instance, he received more traffic to the Class Central site than he did over the entire month of February. “I know what viral means, but this is on a different scale,” he said in an interview. “Usually we get a spike [on an article or two sometimes,] but it doesn’t last for so long.”

He guesses that people are discovering MOOCs as they are suddenly stuck at home looking for something to do. And many outside of education have never heard of the word MOOC (which stands for Massive Open Online Courses) and may not have been aware of the free and low-cost options, he added.

Even so, Shah doesn’t think that this will lead to a tidal wave of students taking MOOCs for credit instead of going to traditional colleges. The format has a history of low completion rates, despite high numbers of people signing up—a trend that he thinks will likely hold for new audiences as well. “Fundamentally the product itself hasn’t changed,” he added.

But Quincy Larson, a former teacher who founded Free Code Camp, a nonprofit that offers computer-science MOOCs at no charge, believes that COVID-19 will bring a “step change” in the popularity of free and low-cost online courses.

“Now it’s on everybody’s radar,” he adds, noting that he has seen a wave of interest, much of it coming from users on Facebook who appear to be learning about the concept of free coding classes for the first time.

“I think a lot of people didn’t realize that there were so many free online courses,” said Larson. “They were so busy working. This is a big wakeup call for people that, ‘Hey, you do need to keep up your skills and adapt to changing circumstances.’”

Meanwhile, on the production side, campuses shuttered by COVID-19 are unlikely to be making as many new MOOCs, said Charles Severance, a University of Michigan professor who teaches a popular course on Python programming through Coursera. He has set up a home studio with professional lighting and a camera so that he can continue making high-quality content even though he can’t get to campus.

“Do we really want to go through a three to six month period where we have no new MOOCs,” he asks, “because we can’t go and film in a studio?”

“We haven’t even begun to hit our stride on how amazing these MOOCs can be,” Severance argues. “We’re a quarter of the way in on the MOOC marathon, and we can’t run anymore.”


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