It is twenty years since Harvard moved into online learning, quickly followed by Rice, MIT – and the Open University. So it is worth asking what is new about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? I think two things are new: First, the scale of the disruption: free learning, for hundreds of thousands of individuals, most of them outside the formal university system. Coursera claims to have 2.4 million students registered to their 200 online courses; these are pretty impressive numbers achieved in a relatively short period of time. Second, the nature of the learning experience: increasingly collaborative, and even peer-led.

But as a driver of real transformation, the impact of MOOCS has been limited, absent a viable business model. And specifically, absent a way in which providers can offer some level of teaching experience, that’s valuable and therefore chargeable to the learner. However, two initiatives we’re familiar with at Cisco suggest this sort of model is now starting to emerge.

The first initiative is the University Of The People. A global university, with 1500 students, remarkably from 135 countries. This is online peer-learning – chat-room technology – providing qualifications in business and technology at just $50 a course. A very affordable model offering mentoring of substantial value from volunteer faculty around the world.

The second initiative is the latest move by Udacity. Udacity as we know has 750000 students in all, 150000 registered to one course, Artificial Intelligence, alone. But as Sebastian Thrun recognizes, Udacity has been looking for a business model until the announcement last month of San Jose State Plus.

The new offering consists of three credit-based online courses, all in the area of the sciences, at 150 dollars per course, marketed to a number of communities outside the university, but aimed primarily toward the current student base, to enrich their experience.  The courses are being created and mentored by San Jose State faculty.

My sense is therefore that an accommodation is underway between the formal university sector and MOOCS: embraced by universities which are starting to see how at least some revenue, plus the allure of an enhanced learning experience, can work alongside the traditional model, and embraced by social entrepreneurs like Sebastian because they need to monetize their investment.

Though as yet it’s hard to see how all this touches the teaching-intensive humanities. Perhaps the next phase of the great experiment will after all be one of impact on the formal university sector itself, as the MOOC phenomenon is absorbed into the system….and catalyses change. I can see three such changes taking place:

  • Access to hundreds of thousands of new students, around the world (outside of the US and the UK, Brazil, India and Russia represent Coursera’s biggest markets)
  • A major new emphasis on instructional design, which has often been missing in higher education
  • And a significant new source of student data

I look very much forward to the conversations around this topic that will take place at the upcoming Cisco Virtual Forum for Education Leaders on March 19, and kindly encourage you to register and actively participate posting questions to experts like Ellen Junn from San Jose State University and Karry Johnson from the New Media consortium.