MOOCs and the Seven Futures (Part 3): MOOCs as Wildcards

MOOCs and the Seven Futures (Part 3): MOOCs as Wildcards

MOOCs are clearly the next big wildcard in online higher education. The big question, of course, is what this means...

Now that we have passed through the “Year of the MOOC," it’s clear that MOOCs are not going away anytime soon.  In fact, MOOCs have become the next big wildcard in online higher education. 

What does it mean to be a wildcard? Chapter 9 of Seven Futures offers one definition (pp.114-15): large growth in online education from an unpredictable source. The last really big wildcard IMO was the oil price shock of 2007-08, which caused a surge in online education enrollments as Ray Schroeder’s “Fueling Online Learning” blog  chronicled in detail. 

MOOCs have clearly increased enrollment in online higher education courses on the noncredit side; according to this article, Coursera and edX MOOCs alone have attracted over two million enrollments. 

MOOCs’ effect on enrollment in credit-bearing online higher education courses has been far less noticeable. There are some signs of new shoots appearing, such as the ACE decision to approve a few MOOCs for credit.  But the overall effect has really been negligible to this point. 

Another important way in which MOOCs are wildcards is that their apparent ability to shapeshift,  becoming many different things to different people. As Stephen Ehrmann explains in his recent post on this topic, the four terms which comprise the MOOC acronym are “confusers:” 

  • So-called MOOCs are emerging that are not particularly Massive;
  • Many MOOCs are not really as “Open” as they appear because they use proprietary resources, cap enrollments, or otherwise put significant limits on openness.
  • Many MOOCs are not really Courses at all either; they are learning experiences which are smaller in scale or scope that do not include the process of moving through a series of events structured around a topic to an education-oriented end. 
  • Even the word “Online” is confusing, but in the opposite direction: it has become common to equate online education and MOOCs, when in fact MOOCs are merely one example of online learning and arguably not a particularly representative one.


As a result, the term “MOOC” has come to mean many different things. as Ehrmann notes in another recent post. One response to this has been the use of other acronyms to describe MOOC variants, such as cMOOCs (community-oriented), xMOOCs (Coursera, edX, Udacity, et al.), MOOLEs (LE = Learning Experiences), MIOCs (I = Inexpensive), MOOEs (E = Events), and so on. 

The other major reason that MOOCs are wildcards is that they are mostly defined in terms of potential at this point. For example, consider the Seven Futures criteria related to redefining knowledge (“New Smart”, p.15):

  • Connects knowledge within, outside of higher/K-12 education
  • Connects knowledge across disciplines 
  • Enables knowledge attainment in various shapes, sizes, timeframes
  • Enables new knowledge generation thru cross-discipline connections
  • Enables distributed, contextual knowledge sharing 
  • Helps learners learn new knowledge as needed
  • Helps learners learn to use new tools for handling data explosion
  • Makes knowledge attainment more measurable in meaningful ways
  • Utilizes visual, multimedia, and digitized knowledge


It seems pretty clear that a particular MOOC could meet any of these criteria -- or none of them. It depends entirely on how a particular MOOC is designed. This is distinct from being a foil to formal education or being an access vehicle, which MOOCs appear to do inherently by their nature.