A Decade of MOOCs: A Review of Stats and Trends for Large-Scale Online Courses in 2021

In 2021 two of the largest MOOC providers had an “exit” event. Coursera went public, while edX was acquired by public company 2U for $ 800 million and lost its not-for-profit status.

Ten years ago, more than 300,000 students took the three free Stanford courses that started the modern MOOC movement. I was one of those learners and started Class Central as a side project to keep track of these MOOCs.

Now, a decade later, MOOCs have reached 220 million learners, excluding China, where we have less reliable data. In 2021, providers introduced over 3,100 courses and 500 microcredentials.

In March, Coursera went public on the NYSE and raised $ 519 million. Since then, the share price has fallen steadily, even though earnings have increased. The company is expected to have sales of more than $ 400 million in 2021. However, it has not yet made a profit and is well on its way to losing well over $ 100 million.

The IPO gave us the opportunity to learn more about the company. I read through the 240-page IPO prospectus and discovered interesting details like the cost of acquiring TKTK company Rhyme ($ 10 million), Andrew Ngs DeepLearning, AI revenue ($ 14.7 million) and how much Coursera paid its university partners ($ 281 million).

In July, edX was unexpectedly acquired by 2U for $ 800 million in cash and lost its nonprofit status. The deal was closed last month and edX CEO Anant Agarwal has switched to the “Chief Open Education Officer” at 2U.

My opinion is that this takeover weakens edX, as it robs it of its greatest (or probably only) advantage over Coursera – an ideological one at that: its non-profit status.

So far, none of the members of the edX consortium has left the company, while two dozen 2U partners have joined edX. EdX has also waived all membership and annual fees for its members to support that foundation.

We have already seen the first signs of integration. EdX has started promoting other 2U acquisitions through edx.org: GetSmarter courses and Trilogy bootcamps.

The takeover of edX by 2U did not have a positive effect on the 2U share price. It’s lower than it was before the takeover. At the time of writing, the company is valued at approximately $ 1.6 billion.

Look beyond the universities

Originally, MOOC providers relied on universities to create courses. However, this dependency is decreasing as more courses are created by companies each year. These corporate partners in the creation of courses include the technology giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

Percentage of new online courses

2020 2021
Kursra 31% 39%
edX 16% 26%
FutureLearning 38% 51%

Analysis by Class Central shows that the proportion of new non-university courses created on Coursera increased from 31 percent in 2020 to 39 percent in 2021. This number excludes the Coursera project network courses that are created by professionals. With these facts in mind, most of the new courses launched on Coursera in 2021 will no longer come from universities.

Something similar happened at FutureLearn. They launched their first subscription-based ExpertTracks in 2021, and only one of three ExpertTracks offerings is produced by universities.

Post pandemic slowdown

In my year-end analysis last year, I talked about the quarantine boost that online course providers, and especially MOOC providers, have experienced. For this reason I have named 2020 the “Second Year of the MOOC”.

With regard to new learners, this surge has partly subsided. In 2021, 40 million new learners signed up for at least one MOOC, compared to 60 million in 2020.

But Coursera has fared much better than its closest MOOC competitors in maintaining the pandemic surge. It added 21 million new learners this year, less than the 31 million in 2020 but more than double the 8 million it took in 2019.

MOOCs began with the promise of free education for everyone, everywhere. But over time the definition of free has changed – from free to free to audit.

These mass online courses were born with no business model. But within a decade, MOOCs went from no income to well over half a billion dollars annually. Driven by the hype in the early years, an entire industry emerged with several providers around the world, including some national platforms.

I did one of the very first MOOCs and back then the videos, assignments and certificates were all free. As MOOC providers focused on finding a business model, certificates and graded assignments migrated behind paywalls. All top MOOC providers now also offer paid courses that do not have free versions.

Providers have also adjusted the scheduling so that courses are available year round rather than having intermittent start dates so learners can start them when needed. The scaling of MOOCs required removing professors from the active role of delivering their courses.

This also destroyed one of the earliest selling points of MOOCs: the community. MOOCs are no longer massive.

But they have found their audience (at least from a monetization perspective): Professional learners – that is, learners taking courses for potential career advantage. To address them specifically, providers have introduced 70 online deals and around 17,000 microcredentials.

The pandemic gave MOOCs a chance. In terms of growth, it allowed them to leap forward in time and gain in months what would have taken them a few years at their previous growth rate had it not been for the pandemic.

That accelerated Coursera’s plans to go public. And edX felt that they couldn’t compete with Coursera without additional resources and decided to get it.

In 2021, MOOC providers are looking beyond universities to create courses. The pandemic has also increased the adoption of online courses from businesses and governments around the world. This is where they are (and will be) looking for growth over the next few years.

For Coursera, “enterprise” (ie selling subscription services to companies that offer access as a perk for employees) is already the fastest growing segment, with 70 percent year-over-year growth compared to 29 percent for “consumers” ie purchases by individual students

We will continue to track MOOC growth at Class Central, including details on performance from Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and Udacity and other major vendors.

In 2022, it is to be expected that the top MOOC providers will continue to expand their catalog through non-university partners and further expand their business in the lucrative enterprise segment.

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