A Decade of MOOCs: A Review of Stats and Trends for Large-Scale Online Courses in 2021

In 2021, two of the largest MOOC providers had an “exit” event. Coursera went public, while edX was acquired by public company 2U for $800 million and lost its nonprofit status.

Ten years ago, more than 300,000 learners took the three free Stanford courses that started it modern MOOC movement. I was one of those learners and Class Central started as a side project to keep track of these MOOCs.

Now, a decade later, MOOCs have reached 220 million learners, with the exception of China, where we don’t have as reliable data. In 2021, providers rolled out over 3,100 courses and 500 microcredentials.

In March, Coursera went public on the NYSE, Raised $519 million. Since then, the share price has steadily fallen, although earnings have increased. The company is expected to generate sales in excess of $400 million in 2021. But it has yet to turn a profit and is on track to lose well over $100 million.

The IPO gave us the opportunity to learn more about the company. I read through the 240-page IPO prospectus and discovered interesting details like the cost of acquiring TKTK company Rhyme ($10 million), Andrew Ng’s DeepLearning.AI earnings ($14.7 million), and how much Coursera paid its university partners ($281 million).

In July, edX was unexpectedly acquired by 2U for $800 million in cash and lost its nonprofit status. The deal closed last month and Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, became 2U’s Chief Open Education Officer.

My recordingis that this acquisition weakens edX, as it takes away its biggest (or probably only) advantage over Coursera — an ideological one at that: its nonprofit status.

So far, none of the edX consortium members have left the edX consortium, while two dozen 2U partners have joined edX. EdX has also waived all membership and annual fees for its members to support this foundation.

We have already seen the first signs of integration. EdX has started promoting other 2U acquisitions through edx.org: GetSmarter courses and trilogy bootcamps.

2U’s acquisition of edX had no positive impact on 2U’s share price. It is lower than before the takeover. At the time of writing, the company is valued at approximately $1.6 billion.

View beyond the university

Originally, MOOC providers relied on universities to create courses. But this dependence decreases with more and more courses created by companies yearly. These corporate partners in course creation include tech giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

Percentage of new online courses

2020 2021
Coursera 31% 39%
edX 16% 26%
futurelearning 38% 51%

Analysis from Class Central shows that the proportion of new non-university courses created on Coursera increased from 31 percent in 2020 to 39 percent in 2021. This count excludes Coursera Project Network courses, which are created by subject matter experts. With that in mind, the majority of new courses launching on Coursera in 2021 are no longer from universities.

has similar happened at FutureLearn. In 2021, they launched their first subscription-based ExpertTracks, and only one in three ExpertTracks offerings is produced by universities.

Post-pandemic slowdown

In my year-end analysis last year, I talked about the quarantine push that online course providers, and MOOC providers in particular, are experiencing. That’s what prompted me to call 2020 the “Second Year of the MOOC.”

When it comes to new learners, that push has to some extent faded. In 2021, 40 million new learners signed up for at least one MOOC, compared to 60 million in 2020.

But Coursera has done much better than its closest MOOC competitors at sustaining the pandemic surge. This year saw 21 million new learners, down from 31 million in 2020 but more than double the 8 million in 2019.

MOOCs started with a promise of free education for everyone, everywhere. But over time, the definition of “free” changed – from “free” to “free to check”.

These mass online courses were born with no business model. Yet within a decade, MOOCs were raking in well over half a billion dollars annually from no revenue. Driven by the hype In its early years it spawned an entire industry multiple providers around the worldincluding some national platforms.

I attended one of the very first MOOCs and back then the videos, assignments and certificates were all free. As MOOC providers focused on finding a business model, certificates and graded assignments migrated behind paywalls. All of the top MOOC providers now also offer paid courses that do not have free versions.

providers too adjusted the schedule so that the courses are available all year round and do not have irregular start dates, allowing learners to start them as needed. In order to scale MOOCs, professors had to be removed from an active role in delivering their courses.

This also destroyed one of MOOCs earliest selling points: the community. MOOCs are no longer massive.

But they found their audience (at least from a monetization perspective): Professional learners – that is, learners taking courses for potential career advancement. In order to address them specifically, providers started 70 online degrees and around 17,000 microcredentials.

The pandemic has given MOOCs a boost. In terms of growth, it allowed them to leap forward in time and gain in months what would have taken them a few years at their previous growth rate were it not for the pandemic.

This accelerated Coursera’s plans to go public. And edX, feeling it couldn’t compete with Coursera without additional resources, decided to acquire it.

In 2021, MOOC providers are looking beyond universities to create courses. The pandemic has also increased the adoption of online courses by businesses and governments around the world. This is where they are (and will be) looking for growth over the next few years.

For Coursera, “enterprise” (ie, selling subscription services to companies that offer employees access as a perk) is already the fastest growing segment, with annual growth of 70 percent, compared to 29 percent for “consumer.” Individual student purchases

We’ll continue to track MOOC growth at Class Central, including a look at details on how Coursera, edX, futurelearning and Udacity and other major providers do.

In 2022 we can expect that the top MOOC providers will continue to expand their catalog through non-university partners and further expand their businesses into the lucrative enterprise segment.

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