What's in store for MOOCs in 2014?

By Daniel Shumski

As 2013 draws to a close, Sebastian Thrun is suggesting the future for his company, Udacity, is in vocational training/career education. At the same time, the missteps in the San Jose State/Udacity partnership have bred distrust among faculty, who may demand a say in approving any such partnerships in the future.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Tech/Udacity partnership for affordable computer science degrees is drawing piles of applications. And Coursera just raised $20 million more in funding. 

 What could all of this mean about the direction of MOOCs in 2014? Here are seven issues MOOCs must grapple with in the coming year:

 1. MOOCs need to make money ... 

 For-profit MOOC companies such as Udacity and Coursera will likely be under pressure to at least show they can generate revenue, if not turn a profit. Coursera took a step toward this goal by announcing in the fall that its certificate program had earned $1 million in revenue. And Udacity seems to have a plan to market itself toward people more likely to pay money for particular skills that they believe will pay off.

 2. ... unless maybe MOOCs can just be nonprofit.

 On the other hand, edX is funded by the universities that support it and is teaming up with Google to launch MOOC.org in 2014. That site will allow pretty much anyone to create and post courses, which sounds like the ultimate in democratization in both teaching and learning — as well as the path with the least hope of turning a profit. It's a good thing Google rakes in money with its search business and the university money can probably be counted on for a while.

 3. MOOCs need a definition for success

 After what were largely recognized as disappointing results with San Jose State University and Udacity, we know what a MOOC success doesn't look like. But more people are asking what a MOOC success does look like. What, for example, is the best way to calculate a MOOC's pass rate? Will 2014 be the year we see an unqualified MOOC success — one in which students, MOOC providers and universities all win? For that to happen, a lot of potentially divergent interests would have to align. And that may not be in the cards next year. 

 4. The audience MOOCs attract may determine what they become

 2014 might be when the dream of MOOCs' ability to bring education to the masses fades away and is replaced by a more pragmatic vision. Already, Coursera has revealed that their typical student in the U.S. is a well-educated young man looking for new career skills. Outside this country, the vast majority of students are likely to come from the upper-income ranks.  All that leads to the question: Who should be taking MOOCs? At least one university professor says they're better suited to the public at large, not a university audience. He sees them as a useful tool for spreading knowledge, but not a highbrow medium suitable for university scholarship. (That idea certainly fits neatly with the edX idea of having Matt Damon teach a MOOC.)

 5. MOOCs need to put data to good use

 Coursera has given us all a peak at how it uses MOOC data to encourage students. EdX is trying to push more personalized MOOCs. Part of the promise of MOOCs was the trove of student data it would allow educators to access. But with the overall success of the MOOC model still up in the air, it's hard to say whether 2014 will be the year MOOCs make good on this promise on a large scale. 

 6. The tension between faculty members and MOOCs must be examined

 With a survey showing that university faculty are deeply skeptical of MOOCs and a faculty group calling for MOOC company profit motives to be examined, it's clear that there is often tension between the MOOC movement and established faculty. Just the latest example: The move by San Jose State University faculty to vote next month on a proposal that would forbid signing contracts with outside technology providers if not approved by faculty members.

 7. MOOCs may need to look overseas for growth

 The U.S. State Department has partnered with Coursera to create "learning hubs" around the world. At the same time, Coursera and edX have each announced partnerships with more universities across the globe. It may seem like the question isn't so much "What is the future of MOOCs?" but "Where is the future of MOOCs?" And the answer may be abroad.

For a look back, here are eight questions MOOCs faced going into this year.

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