Education Tech

Will MOOCs Replace Universities?

MIT and Harvard University in 2012, introduced the open online courses on their co-founded non-profit learning platform called edX. Today, Class Central an open online course reviewer reported an approximate 18 million student subscribers on edX. Hyped as the game-changer that would revolutionize higher education, the open online courses which is now popularly known as Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC), was positioned to provide free online coursework education for unlimited learners from any part of the world. Just as long as there is internet access, MOOC is accessible anytime and anywhere.

Digital illustrations by Vinod J. Nair, 2019.

Class Central reports that Coursera from the U.S., the current leading platform has over 37 million paid subscribers, followed by edX with 18 million (U.S.), XuetengX 14 million (China), Udacity 10 million (US) and Futurelearn 8.7 million (England) (Shah, 2019). The global market for MOOC is set to grow from USD3.9 billion from 2018 to USD20.8 billion in 2023 (Component, 2019). The rise in demand is attributed to the rising cost of tertiary education’s tuition fees that has priced millions of students out of higher education globally. MOOC’s on-demand access also appeals to the working adult market segment where logistical and time constraints are reduced or eliminated altogether. Higher learning institutions offering MOOCs would be able to add to their revenue streams with efficient use of the faculties’ resources complementing their conventional programmes.

With 11,400 MOOC courses available today (Component, 2019), what is the completion rate of these courses? MIT and Harvard’s comprehensive research report on 290 MOOCs (4.5 million participants, and 28 million participant-hours) covering 2014 – 2016, revealed that the total completion rate is at an alarmingly low of 5.5% (Chuang & Ho, 2016).

MOOCs are categorised according to fields of studies such as engineering, humanities, medicine, business and computer science. Each MOOC is offered a couple of times annually and would last for weeks where learners are required to use a wide range of online media and interactive applications to work with lecturers and other learners. With the community of learners’ support, each learner is expected to progress in their studies by having their assignments peer-reviewed rather than by assistant lecturers. As there is no prerequisites nor admissions involved, learners’ prior knowledge, learning objectives or goals and age could vary greatly. This diversity causes various problems for peer assessments in MOOCs what lecturers or instructors depends on to mitigate the sheer amount of work in assessing thousands of assignments.

A recent study concludes that MOOC learners need to acquire certain ICT skills in order to succeed. And that self-efficacy and locus control are determinants for completions (Gameel & Wilkins, 2019). Another study found that perceived effectiveness and instructor interaction are significant factors in determining learner retention. MOOCs need to provide human interactive elements in the courses to ensure learner completions (Hone & El Said, 2016). Zhu et al. (2018) finds that to engage MOOC learners, stimulating videos, optional learning materials, authentic project-based learning and personalized learning pace and path is preferred. However, Hew and Cheung (2014) finds that an immense challenge for MOOC instruction designers is time limitations.

It is vital to conclude that MOOCs without live and interactive lecturer or instructor engagement, is actually an online version of a book. And the assumption of a lecturer’s mastery over classroom planning, presentation and assessment; can organize, present and assess online courses naturally is wrong (Leonard, 2019). To counter the low completion and high dropout rates, MOOCs must be structured and designed around live lecturer engagement. And as with the shift from teacher-centered to 21st Century student-centered learning styles in conventional brick-and-mortar classrooms, MOOCs should not be an exemption but at the forefront of higher education innovation. While MOOCs may provide access to higher education to the masses, it is certainly not the only solution and will assuredly not be replacing brick-and-mortar universities anytime soon.


Shah, D. (2019). Year of MOOC-based Degrees: A Review of MOOC Stats and Trends in 2018. Retrieved from

Component. (2019). Year of MOOC-based Degrees: A Review of MOOC Stats and Trends in 2018 – Class Central. Retrieved from

Chuang, I., & Ho, A. (2016). HarvardX and MITx: Four years of open online courses–fall 2012-summer 2016.

Gameel, B. G., & Wilkins, K. G. (2019). When it comes to MOOCs, where you are from makes a difference. Computers & Education.

Hone, K. S., & El Said, G. R. (2016). Exploring the factors affecting MOOC retention: A survey study. Computers & Education, 98, 157-168.

Zhu, M., Bonk, C. J., & Sari, A. R. (2018). Instructors’ Experience of Designing MOOCs in Higher Education: Considerations and Challenges. Online Learning, 22(4)

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2014). Students’ and instructors’ use of massive open online courses (MOOCs): Motivations and challenges. Educational Research Review, 12, 45–58.

Leonard, W. (2019). So why did MOOCs fail to live up to the hype? (n.d.). Retrieved from


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