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Global MOOC enrolment jumped again last year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Worldwide MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) enrolment grew by nearly two-thirds in 2016 to reach 58 million students
  • Regional MOOC platforms, notably in Latin America and China, are now drawing significant numbers of new students
  • Many courses now support self-paced learning and more frequent course starts, with the result that many students are studying in smaller cohorts than in the recent past

Student enrolment in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has been growing at an especially fast clip over the last few years and that pace barely slowed in 2016. The latest figures from Class Central, an aggregator of MOOC course listings, indicate that 58 million students signed up for at least one course in 2016. This represents a nearly two-thirds increase over the 35 million registered students in 2015, which was in turn a doubling over the enrolment base from 2014.

Helping to fuel this growth, the number of courses on offer continues to climb quickly as well. There were 2,600 new courses announced in 2016 (up from 1,800 the previous year), bringing the worldwide total to nearly 7,000 online courses offered by 700 universities.

Number of MOOC courses available worldwide, 2012-2016. Source: Class Central

By number of courses on offer, Coursera remains the clear leader among MOOC providers with 1,700 active courses, followed by edX (1,300 courses) and the UK-based FutureLearn platform (480 courses).

But 2016 was notable as well for the rising profile of regional players in the MOOC space, including Miríada X, which, based in Latin America, offers 350 courses in Spanish. China’s Tsinghua University-backed XuetangX is another rising platform with more than 300 Chinese-language courses.

In fact, XuetangX breaks into the top five MOOC providers this year, in terms of ranking by number of registrants. Here again, Coursera remains the clear leader with an enrolment base of 23 million students. EdX holds the number two spot with ten million registrations, but XuetangX turns up as the third-largest MOOC provider this year – and the only non-English platform in the top five – on the strength of its six million students. FutureLearn (5.3 million) and Udacity (4 million) round out the roster of top providers for 2016.

More broadly, Class Central notes that roughly one in four first-time MOOC registrants were enrolled with regional providers last year, and forecasts a growing role for such non-English platforms, which, along with Miríada X and XuetangX, include France Université Numérique and MENA’s Edraak.

Other notable MOOC trends observed in 2016 include the following.

  • A move to self-pace learning. Class Central points out as well that, rather than being offered just once or twice a year, many online MOOCs are now offered as self-paced courses with new sessions often beginning monthly or even bi-weekly. “This switch has led to a significant increase in the number of courses students can register for and start almost immediately,” notes the report. “This means that instead of tens of thousands of people learning together, many students are learning at their own pace and in much smaller cohorts.”
  • A continuing emphasis on monetising MOOC studies, both in terms of the expansion of fee-based programmes but also the decline of so-called stand-alone courses. Rather than such one-off courses, providers are more focused this year on offerings tied to MOOC certificates or other credentials.

Class Central founder Dhawal Shah adds, “The range of features and experiences that were once free have dramatically shrunk over the last couple years, raising the question of how ‘open’ MOOCs truly are. Taking the course simultaneously with thousands of learners is no longer a selling point of MOOCs (from a course providers perspective). There’s been a decisive shift to focus on ‘professional’ learners who are taking these courses for career-related outcomes, over the dabblers and lifelong learners who take courses just for curiosity’s sake.”

Overall, the picture for 2016 (and into 2017) is of a rapidly expanding enrolment base for online learning, and of courses that are neither as massive nor as open as they were even a couple of years ago.

These trends align in turn with a growing emphasis in international education on exporting education services via distance or distributed learning on the part of such leading destinations as the UK or Australia.

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