The world of online learning—and the prevailing wisdom within it—changes rapidly. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that within two years, global commentary moved from “the year of the massive online open course” (2012) to “the death of the MOOC” (2014).

Always hoping to keep their work current, researchers in the online learning field are all too familiar with this reality. About two years ago, my colleague Laura Horn and I started writing MOOCs and Online Education: Exploring the Potential for International Educational Development, which was published one year ago in RTI Press. And indeed, sitting here now in March 2017, it is clear that many changes have taken place and the time has already come to revisit the paper, do a roundup of the latest research and developments in MOOCs for development, and see whether any significant new trends or themes had emerged.

Before delving into our new findings, a word on the original paper in case you haven't read it. One of our key takeaways was that there is potential for MOOCs to address important workforce skills gaps in a rapidly changing global economy. However, the standard MOOC model is not suitable to reach those in need. New blended models, local adaptations and realistic business models are needed to ensure that learning opportunities remain affordable, relevant and high quality. This includes paying attention to and supporting the existing online learning and open university models that have been serving the needs of many students for years. By taking another look at the state of research and developments in MOOCs and online learning, I hope to find out if there is more or less reason for optimism.

Relevant news items from the past year

  • Recent data (Chuang and Ho, 2016) from 4 years of Harvard and MIT courses indicated that global enrollment in MOOCs continued to grow steadily, with computer science courses forming an “entry point” to MOOCs: “In four years, 2.4 million unique users participated in one or more MITx or HarvardX open online courses, and 245,000 learner certificates were issued upon successfully completing a course. On average, 1,554 new, unique participants enrolled per day over four years. A typical MOOC certificate earner spends 29 hours interacting with online courseware.”

  • The video learning platform was acquired by LinkedIn for US$1.5 billion shortly before our Occasional Paper went to press, on the apparent conviction that on-demand instructional videos linked to professional credentialing in an increasingly competitive job market would be a viable education business. (Source:

  • Next, in 2016, LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft for US$26.2 billion. I cannot speculate on whether the integration of Lynda was a factor in that acquisition, but a statement by the former CEO of LinkedIn implied that there were many synergies in the learning and development missions of LinkedIn and Microsoft (and that some of the most popular Lynda videos were related to Microsoft products). (Source:

  • Seb Sebastian Thrun stepped down as CEO of Udacity (but remained president) to focus more on innovation in the also thriving MOOC platform, thanks to the concept of “nanodegree” paid certifications. (Source:

In four years, 2.4 million unique users participated in one or more MITx or HarvardX open online courses....                                                                                                                                      

These news items are particularly interesting for those who wonder what the business model for MOOCs is or will become. It seems to me the point is that as long as you can get millions of people to connect to something on a regular basis, the money will follow. This special report in The Economist indicated that profitable business models for MOOCs still depend largely on paid certifications. Research from the University of Cape Town, described below, pointed out that educators were participating in MOOCs as a way to promote their academic fields. To the extent that this engagement brings new business to the university, or raises their profiles individually, this is a longer-term vision of profitability. Yet, for some, spreading access to learning opportunities does remain the key objective. Several notable expansions of MOOCs have occurred internationally (these in addition to the many national MOOC platforms that existed prior to 2016, as in China and the Philippines):

  • Edraak (platform for the Arabic-speaking world) has expanded its course offerings to the point of enrolling a million learners. Users who complete programs value the certification process, and the platform is adapting to this demand by offering certificate courses in multiple languages and linking course completion credentials (badges) to popular job recruitment sites.

  • The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg became the first African university to offer MOOCs on the edX platform (the University of Cape Town was the first in Africa to offer MOOCs, through Coursera and FutureLearn, as early as 2015—see below for new research emanating from these courses). Recognizing—as we did in our publication—that online learning is not new in Africa, they highlight that the unique ability to gain access to some of the best experts in the field, mostly year-round, has improved prospects for many youth to attain some form of higher education.

  • India’s first MOOC platform—SWAYAM—launched in August 2016, and is unique because it is initiated and supported by the government, and so aims to honor the free-of-fees aspect of open online courses.

  • The expanding refugee crises worldwide highlighted a particular situation in which rapid and open access to learning opportunities can make a critical difference in the lives of displaced individuals and the people who support them. RTI collaborated with NetHope on Project Reconnect, which provided Google Chromebooks to Syrian populations for access to a range of services, including MOOCs and other learning opportunities. EdX partnered with Kiron, and the U.S. Department of State partnered with Coursera, to provide free access to MOOCs for refugees and to nongovernmental organizations serving them. Both programs recognized the need to strengthen the online learning with in-person meetings. The Jamiya project added a twist to this type of assistance by connecting refugee teachers to refugee students through MOOCs. It also began offering hybrid online and physical meetings in the Zaatari refugee camp and in Amman, Jordan.

  • Throughout 2016, the discourse on achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals escalated, and many large-scale international development initiatives now link in some way to achieving these goals. UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning issued a guide for policy makers, arguing that online learning, including MOOCs, could be a new path to higher education and lifelong learning for people of all ages in support of Goal 4, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The report also described a range of business models for MOOCs.

  • There is a proliferation of courses that target development professionals. For example, MIT has created a “micromasters” program in data, economics and development policy. Five MOOCs are used as pre-requisites to gain entry into the Master’s program (after candidates pay the course fee and passing a proctored exam).  Also, a World Bank course on financing for development drew 32,000 learners; total of 180,000 learners have participated so far in all World Bank MOOCs

Image of 3x3 grid of laptop computers in different contrasting colors.  The screen says "I MOOC"

What does the recent research reveal about MOOCs in development? 

  • A three-country study of MOOC users released in 2016 by IREX and the University of Washington Information School told a different story than most to date—that MOOC learners from Columbia, the Philippines, and South Africa were not just “the highly educated,” and prone to dropping out. In fact, 79% of learners surveyed had completed a course, of which 49% were learners who got certificates. Furthermore, less than half of MOOC users in their study already had a college degree. Finally, time—not technology—was the biggest barrier to participation among respondents who were even aware of MOOCs at all. These demographic findings contrast with the data in the Harvard/MIT study cited above, which concluded, among other things, that “Controlling for population, HarvardX and MITx certificate earning remains disproportionately prevalent in countries with high HDI [Human Development Index] values where marketing, infrastructure, incentives, and supports are likely converging to enable participants to earn certificates” (Cheung and Ho, 2016, p. 7).

  • Czerniewicz, Deacon, Glover, and Walji (2016) [Journal of Computing in Higher Education] examined whether involvement in MOOCs as leaders or teachers made educators more receptive to openness. The two founding University of Cape Town MOOC courses used as the basis for the research counted 13,744 and 22,154 enrollments (in the subjects of medical practice and neuropsychoanalysis, respectively), of which 20% were from Africa. This paper provided insights into the nuances of “openness” in an African university and pointed out both the opportunities and challenges related to legal openness (reusability, open access).                           

  • Firmansiyah and Timmis (2016) described the evolution of community-led learning support among learners using Coursera in Indonesia. The participants established “face-to-face learning (course-sharing, seminars, semi-guided discussions, and specific study groups) and online learning sessions (specific online study groups, crowd discussion, course reviews)” to adapt to the challenges of the MOOC format.                                          

  • Bernard Nkuyubwatsi [2016, Journal of Learning in Development] looked at MOOCs from the perspective of open access and lifelong learning in Rwanda. Having evaluated the content of 10 MOOC offerings available on Coursera, he concluded that only 2 of the 10 could be helpful in expanding access to higher education in Rwanda; the content of those two was openly licensed to allow derivative works. This would allow adaptations to suit the needs of the learners, including modification of the distribution format. He also highlighted the importance of tutorial support, certification, and fostering a culture of lifelong learning. 

  • Kizilcec, Saltarelli, Reich, and Cohen (2017) [Science], studying Stanford MOOC learners, found that it was not just lack of Internet access or English-language proficiency that caused learners to drop out, but “social identity threat.” Their study, “Closing global achievement gaps in MOOCs,” found that priming learners with positive messages about belonging and persisting helped reduce dropout among learners from developing countries.

  • Pasha, Bidi, and Ali (2016) [International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning] provided another faculty perspective on MOOCs in their retrospective on the challenges of offering a MOOC from Pakistan [“Challenges of Offering a MOOC from an LMIC” (low- or middle-income country)].. All but three of the 230 enrolled students in this bioinformatics course were from Pakistan.

  • Janesh Sanzgiri (2016) presented information from his dissertation report on MOOC use in India, comparing demographics of learners using an open courseware platform in India (NPTEL) to learners using the global course platform FutureLearn. He found, among other things, that NPTEL users were a far more homogenous group (young, male students) than FutureLearn users, and were more extrinsically motivated (in it for the diploma or improving job prospects) than intrinsically (in it for leisure learning). The qualitative data from interviews suggested that MOOCs were an antidote to the low quality of education available in India, but given a choice, participants would also have preferred local to global MOOC content.

The delivery format(s), language and pedagogy of most MOOCs make them inaccessible for many learners who need them the most.                                                             

While that summary is unlikely to be an exhaustive list of major recent research, it does show some recurring themes that are also reminiscent of issues we raised in our original paper. In terms of the applicability of MOOCs to developing contexts, it seems our original conclusion is still valid: The delivery format(s), language and pedagogy of most MOOCs make them inaccessible for many learners who need them the most. However, there is increasing evidence that the prospect of gaining marketable skills and affordable course certifications can be an important motivator for learners in LMICs to overcome these challenges. In these countries, participants are likely to apply MOOC coursework to their employability, more so than the leisurely, self-directed browsing that is often associated with the high dropout rates and is more common in high-income countries. Completion with certification seems particularly relevant for participants from least developed countries. (The University of Washington research, the Edraak article, and Sanzgiri’s dissertation all pointed out the importance of credible certificates, although the Harvard/MIT data still showed that, for their courses, “certification across countries is predicted well by the Human Development Index (HDI)” (r = 0.83). Certification seems quite dependent on raising awareness of MOOCs, and on helping learners identify strategies for being successful with the format, including finding “live” support groups of peers to help contextualize learning and create shared meaning. Furthermore, from positive priming to the advent of artificial intelligence teaching assistants, or crowd-sourced translations, course providers continue to work to improve the pedagogy (and related retention rates) in MOOCs. Several researchers have highlighted issues of perceived quality, including perceptions that MOOCs are of lower quality because they use open-access documents (Czerniewicz et al.) or because of the country of origin (Pasha, Bidi, and Ali). Sheila Jagannathan from the World Bank argues that MOOCs are unique in learning because they are “living repositories of knowledge” that are generated by the interaction between experts and participants. Since they allow learners to participate from anywhere, many participants are directly applying the course content to problem solving or the creation of new products and services.

The authors of the The Economist special report cited above concluded that the trend seemed to be about on-demand access to courses—online or not—with a high return on investment. Both The Economist and Wired have drawn parallels between MOOCs and the music industry’s evolution toward unbundled content made available online, a change in which consumers may have accepted sacrificing quality for convenience and cost. And, like the music industry, the key to surviving the disruption, for today’s brick-and-mortar university, is to make the “live” experience a premium one.

MOOCs and Online Learning in Development: Take 2

So, what would I change if I could publish a Version 2.0 of the paper today? Our original publication argued extensively that much of what is billed as a MOOC is in fact, “online education” or “online training,” and is missing the point that many LMICs have been using distance and online learning for years to adapt to the challenges of higher education. While it may seem a trivial argument, if we are trying to find out what trends are emerging in MOOCs or what the research says, it is extremely useful to compare apples to apples. The confusion over what is or is not a MOOC certainly has not gone away, and although the “online” aspect remains relatively immutable, the various iterations of the degree to which something can be considered “massive,” “open,” or a “course” still results in many different variations of what is called a MOOC. Additionally, the distinction between “a MOOC” and “an online course” does imply something about the credibility and demand for course subjects that can attract tens of thousands of learners at a time, versus ones that attract dozens or hundreds. Truly massive courses need to be analyzed alongside similarly large courses. In the same vein, the contradictory patterns reported by Cheung and Ho (2016) and IREX suggest the need not only to be careful about grouping all online learning into the “MOOC” bucket for the purposes of evaluation and demographic analysis, but also to compare MOOCs of like subjects and compare MOOCs with non-MOOC alternatives (including face-to-face instruction). Can we really draw valid conclusions about learning behavior by comparing the accessibility of, and motivation to complete, a computer science course and a nutrition course? The Cheung and Ho (2016) publication did disaggregate to some extent along content lines and with demographics of campus courses. There may also be the need to distinguish by MOOC platform, since there seems to be a very different pattern of course completion when learners from around the world choose to access an edX or Coursera course versus a course on a national platform like TESDA in the Philippines that is promoted by the government.

Just as we need to be careful about terminology related to MOOCs, categorizing participants broadly as different degrees of “developing” may also prove problematic. Studies that disaggregated data carefully by quantitative indices of human development, such as Cheung and Ho, and Kizilcec et al., did find different patterns according to HDI. Therefore, although our original publication recognized that “a wide range of socioeconomic conditions, student abilities, and access to resources exists within countries as well as across countries,” we were also guilty of a reductionist approach by referring only to LMICs (p. 2). In the future, more careful attention should be paid to the context that brings learners to MOOCs and allows them to succeed; broad, country-level indices may miss important nuances.

Although, as mentioned above, the pedagogical quality of a MOOC probably suffers compared to a smaller online course or a face-to-face version of the same content, learners in many countries (including India, referenced above) would claim that they have to go online to find high-quality content and training. So our conclusion that the debate is really one of “open and flexible learning [versus] traditional ‘brick and mortar’ education” (p. 4) could be made even more forcefully. When less than 6% of the population in Africa has access to higher education, all options are worth pursuing. As we pointed out in our original publication, promoting blended learning by combining MOOC content with face-to-face opportunities remains particularly relevant for course completion and for improving contextual relevance, and this is a point that we could have emphasized even more. Gabi Witthouse wrote a good summary of blended MOOC models and their potential to increase access in LMICs. I think a follow-up publication would need to focus more on unpacking the condiMOOC Poster explaining that every letter in the acronym is negotiable. tions for successful access to and completion of MOOCs in low-income environments and highlighting more examples of these positive adaptations.

As noted above, perhaps MOOCs can be an effective way to build the capacity of governments and development partners, who then can ultimately work to improve ‘brick and mortar’ education as well. This two-pronged approach can expand access to higher education and traditional universities, which still serve the purpose of deeper and more interdisciplinary learning, research, and innovation whereas MOOCs and online learning could rapidly address shortages in specific workforce skills. Nonetheless, a key issue to tackle in a future analysis would be what is the right balance between encouraging governments to make use of MOOCs to address education access and quality (as in the UNESCO/COL report), versus encouraging governments to improve local access to high-quality face-to-face educational opportunities. I will continue to look for examples of this kind of dual focus, as in countries like the Philippines where they are promoting necessary job retooling and access to workforce skills through TESDA, but also working to expand and improve K-12 education.

That this field is continuing to change rapidly is a fact that cannot be ignored—not by researchers like me trying to ensure that my work stays current, and certainly not by practitioners and policymakers seeking to respond to the needs of learners


Read the original Occasional Paper on the RTI Press website and browse their other recent publications by International Education authors like Jennae Bulat and Hank Healey.


Image credits:

MOOC word cloud (c) 2017 by Sarah Pouezevara (original image created with the words from this blog using (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pop Art laptops: Original image by Ilonka Hebels, 2013 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr

MOOC Poster "Every letter is negotiable": Original image by Mathieu Plourd, 2013 (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr


About the Expert

Sarah Pouezevara's picture
Ms. Sarah Pouezevara is Senior Research Education Analyst and eLearning Specialist with the International Education Division of RTI International’s International Development Group. She has expertise in adult learning and training with a special focus on teacher professional development, including using Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for training. She applies this expertise to designing innovative approaches such as mobile learning, open and distance learning, and communities of practice to increase impact of international education project through monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Ms. Pouezevara has led program evaluations for international NGOs in the education and health sectors, and has been the lead or co-author on several practical research reports and reference manuals, including state-of-the art reviews of mobile learning, one-to-one tablet computers, massive open online courses (MOOCs) in education in developing countries and has co-authored EdTech Ecosystem Reviews of 5 countires.