MOOCs continue to dominate higher education headlines, but what is the current state of play, and what does the future hold for online course providers?

The rise of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has not been a quiet one, and much indicates that the MOOC providers that stole higher education headlines throughout 2012 will continue to be a disruptive force in the sector throughout 2013 and beyond. In the past two weeks, Stanford-backed Coursera and MIT and Harvard’s edX both announced a flurry of new partner institutions. Coursera, the largest of the main three MOOC platforms with over 2.7m students, announced 29 new universities, bringing its total partner count to 62. At the same time, edX added a further six partners, including its first institutions outside of the US, and now has a total of 12. Meanwhile, in news welcomed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, MOOC provider Futurelearn added to its all British line-up with seven new partners including the British Council and the British Library, joining a number of prestigious UK institutions including Cardiff, Birmingham, Warwick, Exeter, and Southampton. The platform, led by distance educator The Open University, is due to start offering courses in the second half of this year. Futurelearn also revealed that the platform will be for-profit, opening the door to questions posed at its American rivals regarding business models. While the rate at which the main three US MOOC platforms have grown is staggering, the return on investment for providing free-to-access higher education is, as yet, unlikely to spark any champagne-popping parties with their venture capital partners. While edX remains not-for-profit, both Coursera and the third major MOOC platform Udacity have received $22m in venture backing over the past year. On paper, Udacity makes for enticing investment offer.  It is the first of the three major platforms and founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun; the man behind Google X, the research unit which developed the internet giant’s self-driving car and upcoming Glass product. Udacity has grown its globally-reaching userbase to over 400,000 students in a year, and plans to continue growth with computer science-focussed courses backed by names like Google, Microsoft, and Nvidia. Yet, as with Coursera, a robust monetisation strategy is yet to emerge. So far, many have been put forward but none have stuck. One of the most obvious is to charge for accreditation at the end of the course; Coursera has already laid out plans to charge between $30 and $100 for a certificate. However, invigilation issues remain a significant hurdle for MOOCs to jump. Many academics have already underlined the importance of MOOC platforms…

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