The Second Year of The MOOC: 2020 Saw a Rush to Large-Scale Online Courses

This was the year that more people learned what a MOOC is.

As millions suddenly found themselves with free time on their hands during the pandemic, many turned to online courses—especially, to free courses known as MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. This phenomenon was compounded by media worldwide compiling lists of “free things to do during lockdown,” which tended to include MOOCs.

Of all the learners that ever registered on a MOOC platform, one third did so in 2020, making 2020 MOOCs’ most consequential year since 2012, which has been dubbed “Year of the MOOC”.

In 2020, the big MOOC providers got bigger, and the biggest one pulled further ahead of the rest.

In late February and early March, as universities worldwide were going remote due to the pandemic, I noticed that MOOCs weren’t part of the conversation.

But on March 15, at Class Central we saw a large influx of visitors. This was the weekend when quarantine measures went into effect in many countries around the world.

Within two months, Class Central had received over 10 million visits and sent over six million clicks to MOOC providers. These learners also turned out to be more engaged than usual. In April 2020, MOOC providers Coursera, edX and FutureLearn attracted as many new users in a single month as they did in the entirety of 2019.

Big MOOC providers responded to the pandemic by offering free courses about COVID-19, free certificate courses, and free catalog access to university students. Class Central compiled a list of 90 online course providers that offered free learning opportunities during the pandemic.

The quarantine boost produced over a year's worth of users and revenue in just a couple of months.

While the boost is nowhere near its March-April peak, it has drastically impacted providers’ fortunes. It allowed them to skip forward: they’re now where they would have expected to be two years down the road, in the absence of pandemic.

Coursera has already capitalized on these circumstances: it doubled its valuation and is considering going public in 2021.

As a result, MOOCs during the pandemic reached a broader population with wider interests.

Data collected by Class Central show that pre-pandemic, technology-related subjects were the most popular: the ten most-followed courses were all career-focused. Post-pandemic, interest in soft skills and general topics increased.

The most popular course during the pandemic turned out to be Yale University’s The Science of Well-Being, with over 2.5 million enrollments in 2020.

One-fifth of the 100 most popular courses launched in 2020 are directly related to COVID-19. The top course, with over 1 million enrollments, is Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 Contact Tracing. It’s followed by Harvard’s Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19, with 300,000 enrollments.

Over the years, providers have become better at monetizing their content. But when it comes to gaining new users, they’d hit a wall: in 2019, they attracted a similar number of users as in 2018.

The pandemic helped them break through that wall.

2012, the “Year of the MOOC” was characterized by media hype. Many claims and predictions were made. I went back and read a few:

Most of these predictions haven’t materialized.

But it did lead to FOMO in higher education institutions and Silicon Valley, prompting them to invest capital and resources to launch free online courses without a concrete plan to recoup costs or earn a return.

Nine years later, the impetus generated by the Year of the MOOC has borne fruit: combined, providers are making hundreds of millions every year.

This is why I’m calling 2020 the Second Year of the MOOC. I believe it will give MOOCs a platform on which providers will build for the years to come.

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