A few years ago, it seemed as if upstart online learning portals were about to reshape how we learned. Now it seems they’re missing the mark entirely.
Commonly referred to as MOOCs, or ‘Massive Open Online Courses,’ brands such as Udacity, Lynda, and Treehouse made it simpler to learn unique skills. By focusing on one discipline per course (such as machine learning or Python), the platforms were able to keep out-of-pocket costs for learners down; instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars for a traditional degree (and taking a lot of different subject-matter credits in the process), students could focus on a single programming language or skill and spend far less.
The promise of low-cost education for a wider audience may be in trouble, though. Udacity recently vowed to trim its staff by up to 25 percent through Q1 2019, dismissing 125 staffers and closing its office in Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to VentureBeat, the layoffs will hit staff in video production, content creation, and other general course-creation roles. TechCrunch cites sources claiming at least 100 Udacity employees will be let go, and this follows a five percent staff trimming earlier this year.
Udacity isn’t the only MOOC bitten by layoffs. In 2016, Treehouse culled 21 percent of its 100-strong staff in what founder and CEO Ryan Carson called a move to “stop spending more than we make each month.” According to CrunchBase, Treehouse hasn’t taken funding since a $7 million round in 2013. It’s unclear what the company’s current financial state (or burn rate) is.
Faced with challenges, some MOOCs have begun to pivot. Treehouse, along with MOOC/bootcamp provider Big Nerd Ranch, has begun focusing on the enterprise space. Lynda was acquired by LinkedIn, and now serves as its monthly subscription service for continuous learning.
Success rates are hard to measure for MOOCs. One entity attempting to hold MOOCs accountable is the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, or CIRR. Its aim is to examine MOOC graduation and job placement rates on a quarterly basis. But it seems CIRR has failed; it hasn’t published results since the end of 2017.
Udacity’s founder and returning leader (VentureBeat reports he’s re-taken the helm since CEO Vishal Makhijani stepped away earlier this year) Sebastian Thrun says the true value in education is finding a job once you’re done with schooling. A Glassdoor study shows a STEM degree is not necessary to land a job in tech, but surveys suggest those without traditional degrees are having trouble filling roles.
Stack Overflow’s annual developer survey underscores the main issue with MOOCs. Nearly half of bootcamp grads who took the survey were already employed as developers when they participated in the bootcamp, underscoring how Treehouse and Big Nerd Ranch’s choice to target the enterprise was probably the right course of action. Moreover, one-fifth of bootcamp grads said it took them longer than 90 days to find a job, with nearly nine percent saying they hadn’t landed a job in tech at all.
The biggest offender of this MOOC decline might be Woz U, which bears Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s name and likeness. After our initial side-eye examination of the platform, CBS followed up with a more direct look at Woz U, speaking to several staffers in the process. All told, Woz U was found to be a ploy, with courses reportedly full of errors and mentors unqualified to teach.
The fall of ITT foreshadowed all of this MOOC action; its legal woes and closure foreshadowed many of the issues with for-profit education. MOOCs aim to turn a profit before anything else, which is why so many have turned an eye toward education contracts with deep-pocketed companies.
LinkedIn’s Lynda and Udemy’s ‘App Store’ approach may prove the true champions of online learning. LinkedIn can withstand disruption and keep Lynda plugging along, and Udemy is still venture-funded. Udemy’s most recent round brought its total raised to $173 million; CrunchBase notes it has 14.7 percent app download growth month-over-month; those are solid indicators of future growth.
Udemy’s ‘App Store’ approach to online learning may prove the most salient for tech pros. We like to learn from one another and share information, and an online storefront offers a monetizable way to do so. Courses are routinely $10 each, which is a far cry from what some platforms ask. It also has the most diversity in terms of specializations or unique skills (you can learn Swift, then learn how to make SpriteKit games… for $20).
Coursera is popular, serving as a type of Udemy for universities. It takes bespoke courses from top colleges around the world and packages them as standalone products. It’s also offering accredited four-year degrees from the University of Illinois.
Perhaps some of these platforms disrupted each other rather than the formal university system, bursting their own bubbles along the way. MOOCs aren’t “dead,” per se, but their certifications aren’t widely viewed as valuable as university degrees.