For those following the issue of MOOCs and their impact on higher education, this Boston Globe editorial does a really good job of evaluating the current landscape and predicting the future of MOOCs in higher education.
In late 2013, several naysayers declared the MOOC dead in the water. Naysayers, however, are often very short-sighted. Just ask Cliff Stoll, who declared the Internet basically dead at the end of the last millennium, and e-commerce a fantasy that would never materialize. Ahem.
While it's certainly true that MOOCs will evolve continuously, there is no doubt in my mind that their impact on higher education is just beginning. Those high dropout rates are more indicative of the importance of incentive (grade/credit/degree) than the tenacity or potential for success (or lack thereof) by those students who are casually sampling the wares offered through current MOOCs. Nor the quality of the potential MOOC experience itself, for that matter. I myself have casually sampled MOOCs as a learner, knowing that I would not complete the course in the expected sense, but still gleaning very valuable information, professional and personal connections and perspective from each I visited, however briefly or sporadically.
Once we resolve the issue of course credit (institutions' willingness to apply credits earned in MOOCs and to accept them in lieu of more traditional classroom credit hours), I am speculating that we will shift focus to an entirely different brand of learner and a much more impressive dataset regarding outcomes. Not because their academic caliber will be so different, although it will certainly become more mainstream as degree seekers flow into the open education movement. The stakes simply aren't high enough right now to impact learners' decisions to stay or to go, to participate fully or to simply observe. And the nature of higher education is changing as it becomes more widely accessible. The increased diversity of learners will shape its future design by necessity and by market demand. We really have no choice but to work side-by-side our colleagues in the open education movement, accepting graciously what they're offering to share with us. We should not forget that the tuition-free University of the People gained national accreditation just a few months ago.
In fact, we would do well to remember that all legitimate educational pursuits are not necessarily academic credit-bearing endeavors and that more casual, personalized and ongoing learning opportunities are of great interest to a population already degreed and working in professional circles—as well as those seeking accredited degrees. The value of the MOOC goes well beyond degree attainment, or even post-graduate professional development. MOOCs release "learning" from the ivory towers and ancient floorboards and chalkboards of formal, traditional academia and open up learning for the sake of learning to a global population hungry for such opportunities as well. In terms of bolstering higher education accessibility and viability, this late-coming disruptive innovation couldn't come soon enough! Many in traditional higher education are trying to apply last-millennium classroom teaching/learning models to online learning experiences and it's just not working out so well. (See the Serious e-Learning Manifesto for what we're doing about it!)
The human learning communities being formed around MOOCs are where the real gold is hidden and the source of the brightest light of hope in this movement. The peer-to-peer learning so central to the MOOC-style classroom not only models a more realistic teaching/learning strategy for those participating, but creates relationships and communities (however virtual) that are real and can sustain learners well beyond the formal educational experience itself. MOOCs have the potential to do a much better job of preparing learners for real workforce conditions than the 1950s classroom model that relies almost solely on summative assessment, rote memorization and tortured one-way lectures for teaching/learning.
Stay tuned! MOOCs are just beginning to warm up the landscape!