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MOOC Trends in 2015: Rise of Self Paced Courses

Find out how the format of MOOCs has changed and grown over the past year, what “self paced” means for MOOCs, and how it compares to the “session based” format.

This article is just one in our 2015 MOOC Roundup Series. Find the whole series of articles here, and discover everything MOOCs in 2015 — from the most popular classes, to overviews on developments in MOOC platforms, to looking at the MOOC-future.

55% of all courses on Class Central do not have an upcoming start date 

MOOCs started out with a structure parallel to college classroom courses, with a start date and an end date, and specific deadlines for assignments/homework. Even now more MOOCs are offered in months coinciding with the fall and spring semester.

An issue with these session based MOOCs has been that students were never sure when the course would be offered again, or even if it would be offered again. Popular courses, such as Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, have been taken off of Coursera’s website. In fact, 55% of all courses listed on Class Central do not have an upcoming start date. We built MOOC Tracker, the tagline of which is “Never Miss a Course,” specifically to solve the problem of MOOCs having unpredictable schedules.

Udacity was the first provider to abandon this scheduled paradigm (back in 2012). The company adopted a self-paced model — users can sign up and complete a course at their own pace (which allows flexibility for students, and also happens to fit well with Udacity’s revenue model based on monthly subscriptions). This idea is closer to the self paced content available on Udemy or Lynda.com.

I prefer session-based courses. I feel like I learn more from them, the forums are usually much more active and finishing feels like more of an accomplishment.
– Class Central User Greg Hamel 

As we noted in our 2014 Roundup of the MOOC Space, other providers also began to adopt this model. In 2014, Coursera started re-building their platform to support these “always available” courses. They made a big push toward what they called “On Demand” courses. Many of the older session-based courses have been moved to this new On Demand platform, and the bulk of Coursera’s new courses are directly offered in the On Demand format. Currently close to 300 Coursera courses are available as self-paced courses.

EdX, too, have started making their courses self paced. The MOOC Circuits and Electronics, taught by edX’s CEO Anant Agrawal, was the first course on the  edX platform (which was called MITx back then); the course has since been broken down into three parts and they are available as self paced courses. At the time of writing 180 courses, which account for almost 25% of all edX courses, are now available as self paced MOOCs.

Self Paced vs. Session Based Courses

I have taken several scheduled courses, but not a single self paced course. The main reason is that the deadline is motivating.
– Class Central user Henrik Warne 

Self paced courses are a clear boon to those students who want scheduling flexibility, but they also remove key elements that have been part of the “MOOC” formula that has been so popular. Such elements include the benefits of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) students taking the course together and learning at the same pace. According to Class Central user Greg Hamel, who has completed more than one hundred MOOCs: “Lack of schedule means students are not all learning the same material at the same time. This makes it harder to get help and discuss course content.

Another aspect of self paced courses is the lack of deadlines. According to Ronny De Winter, another Class Central user: “Strict deadlines help me in planning and scheduling my course work.” He thinks some On Demand courses tend to reduce down to video lectures combined with multiple-choice quizzes, which is a very poor and limited use of today’s MOOC capabilities.

In an informal survey of Class Central users who have done multiple MOOCs , most of those surveyed preferred session based courses over self paced courses. But on a separate Twitter poll, two-thirds of the respondents preferred Self Paced courses.

A Middle Ground?

Tools like forums and peer grading weren’t as effective when everyone completed work at a different pace.
– Coursera 

In a blog post earlier this year, Couresra acknowledged some of the problems listed above. To solve the problems, Coursera introduced regularly scheduled sessions with soft deadlines. These sessions usually run once a month. If a student is not able to finish the course, they can always move to the next session without losing their place in the course.

Coursera Switch Sessions

This article is just one in our 2015 MOOC Roundup Series. Find the whole series of articles here, and discover everything MOOCs in 2015 — from the most popular classes, to overviews on developments in MOOC platforms, to looking at the MOOC-future.

Dhawal Shah Profile Image

Dhawal Shah

Dhawal is the CEO of Class Central, the most popular search engine and review site for online courses and MOOCs. He has completed over a dozen MOOCs and has written over 200 articles about the MOOC space, including contributions to TechCrunch, EdSurge, Quartz, and VentureBeat.

Comments 2

  1. Millionlights

    we agree with this post – our courses – more than 95% are all self paced –

  2. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

    Being cohort is important . It makes forums possible.
    I offer a semi- self paced .
    Every MOOCs is provided 4 times a year.
    1. Quarter starting in early January ending in late March
    2.- Quarter starting in early April ending in late June
    3.- Quarter starting in early July ending in late September
    4.- Quarter starting early October ending late December .
    Being a cohort is very much useful for forums plus many learning measurements can be made by the universities .
    Also length of all courses must be the same , all must be 10 weeks like quarter system universities .
    All MOOCs courses must be same as oncampus courses, same quality .
    There are some universities accepting the certificates of the providers and awarding credits for MOOC certificates toward degrees . That is excellent .
    See http://www.worlduniversity.london


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