By DAVID MYTON

Over the past six years the MOOC has whirled through the Gartner Hype Cycle – sparked into life by an innovation trigger (great idea!), up the peak of inflated expectations (they’ll replace universities), down the trough of disillusionment (they’re not that good), ascending the slope of enlightenment (ah, we get it!), and now bustling along the path of productivity.

Doing nicely, thank-you very much. More or less.

According to data collected by Class Central and reported in ed-tech resource platform EdSurge, last year 23 million people worldwide registered for a MOOC course for the first time ever, while the total number of students who signed up for at least one course was 58 million, up from some 35 million the previous year.

The main players remain Coursera, edX, FutureLearn and Udacity, while XuetangX (China’s Tsinghua University and Ministry of Education, the only non-English language platform) is now making significant inroads with six million registered last year.

EdSurge reports that last year 2,600 new courses were announced (up from 1,800 the previous year), taking the total number of MOOCs to 6,850 from over 700 universities.

The venerable University of Oxford also put its toe in the water with its first MOOC offering, through edX, adding its name to a list of top rankers such as Stanford, Yale, MIT, Singapore, Trinity College Dublin, Sorbonne and 600-odd other universities that offer MOOCs.

Significant change is afoot in MOOC land, however: there is a marked drift away from free to paid including charges for certificates, graded assignment and content with EdSurge noting: “All the major providers already have or plan to launch courses that are paid only.”

In a competitive world, many learners reasonably want credentials resulting from successful study and appear prepared to pay for their courses.

Also trending is a decline in students utilising MOOCs for “interest only” subjects and a rise in those wishing to improve career prospects by studying skills-based courses centred on science, business and management, technology and computing.

MOOCs that can help people get ahead will get ahead themselves.

And it’s not only universities providing offerings. As Online Course Report notes, US-based companies Microsoft and Google top the list of other global institutions offering MOOCs.

Here we see another trend – many large corporations are experimenting with internal MOOCs for corporate learning purposes.

The biggest recent change to MOOCs, says Class Central, is that they have become more available with a significant rise in the number of courses that users can start immediately which means that “instead of tens of thousands of people learning together, everybody is learning at their own pace and in much smaller cohorts”.

MOOCs, it says, “have evolved to meet the needs of their students”.

Could there be a lesson there for other, more traditional, highered institutions?

The Australian context

Local universities have developed and are offering many innovative and free MOOCs, but progress has been relatively slow possibly because of restrictive copyright and licensing rules.

In October Open Education Licensing announced it would be launching an open education licensing toolkit to help local institutions to navigate the “issues around copyright and openness in open online education”.

Nevertheless, this has not stopped Austrade from thinking big about the potential of MOOCs.

In April last year it launched a “roadmap” for how Australian educators could (possibly) market and utilise online technology to secure 110 million international students studying local courses by 2025.

Today a variety of MOOCs is on offer in Australia and the number is growing. Many of the local MOOCs can be found in The Good Universities Guide, with courses ranging from business management, computing and information technology, to education and training, nursing, science and agriculture.

MOOCs are also offered by several TAFE institutions.

Further, Open Universities Australia has developed its own MOOC platform, Open2Study, with some 140 courses available from Australian universities and TAFEs.

Marnie Hughes-Warrington, DVC Academic at the ANU, has cautioned that for universities MOOCs are essentially start-ups or spin-offs and the business model for profitable progress is not yet clear.

“If the groups providing MOOCs perform to form, market readiness could take another five years to achieve, and if the case of Twitter is anything to go by, the business model might not even be clear by then,” she wrote.

The situation is complicated because MOOCs have “multiple development pathways open to them,” indicating there might not be one business model but rather multiple business streams.

A major challenge from MOOCs for higher education was this:

I am free to study the things I want, in a configuration I want. I am not bound by rules about degree and rule structures, which are, after all, historical rather than natural structures.”

MOOCs – the local heroes

Here are some great MOOCs offered by Australian universities, as highlighted by my colleague Stephen Matchett in Campus Morning Mail’s regular ‘MOOC of the morning’:

The University of Adelaide has launched its first micro masters MOOC, via provider partner edX. It’s on big data and how to transform it “into business insights and solutions … to advance your career.”  Completing the MOOC will generate enough course credits for 25 per cent of the university’s Master of Data Science.

Curtin University is also expanding its micromasters program, with a suite of five marketing courses over 46 weeks which can be a pathway into the university’s marketing masters.

The excellent Wicking Centre at the University of Tasmania is the source of a model for the MOOC as scholarship in the service of the community. Some 70,000 people around the world have enrolled in its Dealing with Dementia with 40 per cent of them completing. And now researchers at Wicking have a new MOOC, Preventing Dementia. Co-director James Vickers says that people whose engagement with education when young was low have a higher risk of developing dementia than those with more years of learning. And this might apply as out brain’s age; “we know now there’s quite a lot of plasticity that’s retained in adults and older people,” he says.

The University of the Melbourne and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have created “two unique new online courses for anyone interested in learning optimisation technologies – without a textbook.” Basic modelling and advanced modelling for discrete optimisation are both available via Coursera.

The University of Sydney is addressing attrition – not just there but everywhere, with MOOCS teaching prospective and commencing students the foundation skills they need to succeed. The university will offer five courses, via Coursera, collectively badged as Building learning skills to excel at university.

The University of Tasmania announced its MOOC on marine and Antarctic science has cracked 10,000 starters over two years (it runs every month). What is especially impressive is that 23 per cent of them have completed all the assessment tasks required for an attainment certificate.

The University of Queensland (via edX) is offering a new version of its MOOC on preparing for the IELTS Academic Test. It provides “immediate access to over 80 hours of interactive practice materials covering each of the four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.” With five UoQ instructors, there is new content, plus “comprehensive feedback on your writing using several new features.” Some 270 00 people have already used the IELTS prep.

ANU academics Gabriele Bammer and Michael Smithson are running a second season of their (now expanded) MOOC, via edX, on Ignorance; “what it is, where it comes from, what people do with it, its roles in society and culture, and how to deal with it.”

Curtin University has launched a MOOC, via EdX, on Reputation management in a digital world. This is a classic example of the MOOC as brand builder and it should attract a big audience among people charged with protecting the reputations of businesses and not for profits and who cannot afford PR professionals.