After torrid year, can edtech firms crack professional education?

With most major players making redundancies and tightening their belts, edtech has faced a difficult year, but could moves into career development save the industry?

January 3, 2023
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When massive open online courses (Moocs) burst on to the scene a decade ago, the online learning platforms that came with them had three big overarching aims, according to Justin Reich, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab.

First, he said, they wanted to disrupt higher education and bring in a new kind of system. Second, they would democratise universities and provide access for many millions more people. Third, Moocs could transform the science of learning. “Essentially, none of those three things happened,” Dr Reich said.

Instead, he believed, higher education has “domesticated” the Mooc model and found places where it can work without being transformative while catering mostly to an already educated, affluent crowd.

Many of the original Mooc providers – or edtech firms, as they now prefer to be known – have broadened their offerings from the large-scale open courses they began with to include degrees, microcredentials and professional development. This is not a model that has yet proved to be particularly profitable, however.

Coursera announced lay-offs in November due to “lower growth rates and environmental uncertainty”, while edX’s owner, 2U, saw its stock price drop 70 per cent last year and the UK-based FutureLearn has been sold to Global University Systems (GUS) after posting multimillion-pound losses. Udacity too has made some staff redundant and announced a change in its leadership.

If 2012 was famously the “year of the Mooc”, according to The New York Times, 2022 may well be seen as the “year the Mooc died”.

On the face of it, the struggles of the original Moocs make little sense. The Covid years fostered an irreversible move towards online education and propelled technology to the centre of university life.

“The pandemic was when the world discovered that online learning was not merely second rate and cheap,” said Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at UCL.

“But it is also actually good, and you can do a lot of things with it. Of course, it is not the same as face to face but in many ways it can be better. We need both, especially if we are interested in access to education, inclusivity and expansion.”

The various lockdowns around the world heralded a second coming for Moocs, with attention – and investment – on a scale that had not been seen since 2012.

“The pandemic could have been the big moment for them,” Dr Reich agreed. “The promise was they could build an infrastructure that was better than our existing one, and in 2020 they only had to be better than a broken, hobbled, pandemic-inflected system.” But the growth during this period has not been sustained.

Paul Bacsich, a consultant who wrote a report on Mooc business models for the European Union in 2016, said the financial difficulties were not unexpected.

In his view, there have been few positive developments since the report found that the two main ways of making money – charging extra for important aspects of a course, such as exams or accreditation, or using Moocs as a loss leader to upsell customers into more lucrative courses, such as online master’s – have both proved difficult to make work without a strong professional and vocational training offer.

Another potential source of revenue and growth – partnerships with universities – has also stalled. Where once university administrators were forced to join with edtech firms because they were seen as the next big thing, many have shown signs of being disillusioned with what they have to offer.

Clay Shirky, vice-provost of educational technologies at New York University and an influential voice in the sector, told Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit last October that he had found edtech “overrated” and that the pandemic had taught the institution not to chase technological innovation for its own sake but to focus on teaching and collaboration. This had led to NYU not “on-boarding” any new technology during the crisis.

This issue of completion rates has dogged Moocs from the start, and this is because “most people find self-paced online learning really hard, especially if we are not learning something deeply interesting to us”, said Dr Reich.

“The distinctive thing about Moocs was to try to teach people without a lot of direct human engagement,” he added.

“But even if you are doing things online, human connections are essential for learning. Most of us participate in learning communities because of the sense of obligation, reciprocity and the connection we feel with students and peers.

“Institutions have invested a lot in coaches and advisers and other kinds of human connections that help people persist in their work. Many forms of online learning depend on relatively low student-teacher ratios that will allow there to be real human connections.”

For this reason, Professor Laurillard believed the future of edtech lay in professional education. “Moocs began with a great hype around opening up the best institutions to everyone; they haven’t – it is rubbish to talk that way,” she said.

“For a long time, it was seen as a solution for undergraduate students. It isn’t because it is massive. The whole point is to be massive, and you can’t do the individual nurturing which students require.”

An optimistic view, she said, was that a combination of the realisation that online learning can deliver and the capability the large-scale platforms provide can be put to work training professionals on the “massive challenges” the world faces.  

“The focus should be on what the professional world needs in terms of updating new solutions, different ways of doing things, new, greener practices. Where else is all that education going to come from?” she said.

For it to work, she said, there had to be the incentive for students to pay, and they will if the qualification opens doors for them at work.

“If it is seen as part of your professional development, if it demonstrates you have a particular kind of skill – it is of value to them because it is valued by others around them,” Professor Laurillard said.

As such, she argued that the edtech firms should foster more partnerships with government ministries or large companies.

“You could persuade them to create the conditions within which their employees or clients will be pleased to pay a small amount for certification and completion of a course,” she said.

“There is an implicit business model there. I think it is possible, but we are not trying to work for it. They are just saying: ‘That doesn’t work; we’ll do microcredentials and get rich people to pay.’ That’s private education and where is the benefit? Where’s the vision in that? It’s back to the old days.”

Such a move to vocational education and accredited training was “very long overdue”, according to Professor Bacsich, who said companies should align courses with the requirements of regulators such as Ofqual in the UK, whose accreditation is “well understood and well accepted in the Commonwealth, Caribbean and many other English-speaking countries”.

Edtech firms seem to agree that their future lies in careers. When FutureLearn was taken over by GUS in November, those behind the deal emphasised how it would allow the platform to be integrated with its new parent company’s AI-powered career-management system, differentiating it from its competitors.

“It’s significant that Moocs like FutureLearn are now betting on ‘artificial intelligence’ in work-based learning and career management,” said Ben Williamson, chancellor’s fellow in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.

“We've already had two waves of hype about Moocs transforming HE, but that has not happened – so Mooc owners are now looking for different business prospects.

“The third wave of Mooc hype is sure to be about the power of AI to match students to jobs. This may go down well in education-policy contexts where employability and skills for industry are a priority – but it also risks exposing young people to the discriminatory harms that automated technologies can cause.”

Will there be a third Mooc wave? Dr Reich was less convinced. “I don’t think we are going to see another Mooc moment for a long time,” he said.

“It will be harder for at least the next few years for education technology evangelists to claim things are about to really completely transform.”

In many ways this was not surprising, he argued, as a Mooc revolution was never very likely in the first place.

“There are very few things we’ve done in human history where something substantially, dramatically improves how teaching and learning happens or how educational systems are organised,” Dr Reich said.

“Human development is always a game of inches. You can make learning systems better, but it is not something that happens in these huge shifts. It is in improving 1,000 little things, a little bit. That is frustrating for people who want to see dramatic changes, but that is not the way the field works.”


Print headline: Can edtech crack the professional education market?

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