Of all the learners that ever registered on a MOOC platform, one third did so in 2020, making 2020 MOOCs’ most consequential year since the “Year of the MOOC”.
In 2020, the big MOOC providers got bigger, and the biggest one pulled further ahead of the rest.
Now in its ninth year, the modern MOOC movement has crossed 180 million learners, excluding China1. Class Central data shows that providers launched over 2800 courses, 360 microcredentials, and 19 online degrees.
In late February – early March, as universities worldwide were going remote due to the pandemic, I noticed that MOOCs weren’t part of the conversation.
But on March 15, Class Central saw a large influx of visitors. This was the weekend when quarantine measures went into effect in many countries around the world.
As millions suddenly found themselves with free time on their hands, many turned to online courses — especially, to free courses. This phenomenon was compounded by media worldwide compiling lists of “free things to do during lockdown”, which tended to include MOOCs.
Within two months, Class Central had received over 10 million learners and sent over 6.3 million clicks to MOOC providers. These learners also turned out to be more engaged than usual. In April 2020, Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn attracted as many new users in a single month as they did in the entirety of 2019.
Big MOOC providers responded to the pandemic by offering free courses about COVID-19, free certificate courses, and free catalog access to university students. Their full pandemic response is described here.
Class Central also compiled a list of 90 online course providers that offered free learning opportunities during the pandemic.
As a result, MOOCs during the pandemic reached a broader population with wider interests.
Data collected by Class Central show that pre-pandemic, technology-related subjects were the most popular: the ten most-followed courses were all career-focused. Post-pandemic, interest in soft skills and general topics increased.
The most popular course during the pandemic turned out to be Yale University’s The Science of Well-Being, with over 2.5 million enrollments in 2020.
One-fifth of the 100 most popular courses launched in 2020 are directly related to COVID-19. The top course, with over 1 million enrollments, is Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 Contact Tracing. It’s followed by Harvard’s Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19, with 300K enrollments.
The Second Year of the MOOC
||Hundreds of millions
Over the years, providers have become better at monetizing their content. But when it comes to gaining new users, they’d hit a wall: in 2019, they attracted a similar number of users as in 2018.
The pandemic helped them break through that wall.
2012, the “Year of the MOOC” was characterized by media hype. Many claims and predictions were made. I went back and read a few:
Most of these predictions haven’t materialized.
But it did lead to FOMO in higher education institutions and Silicon Valley, prompting them to invest capital and resources to launch free online courses without a concrete plan to recoup costs or earn a return.
Nine years later, the impetus generated by the Year of the MOOC has borne fruit: combined, providers are making hundreds of millions every year.
This is why I’m calling 2020 the Second Year of the MOOC. I believe it will give MOOCs a platform on which providers will build for the years to come.
The quarantine boost produced over a year’s worth of users and revenue in just a couple of months. We experienced this ourselves: of all the people who’ve used Class Central since its inception nine year ago, 40% (18+ million) did so for the first time this year.
While the boost is nowhere near its March-April peak, it has drastically impacted providers’ fortunes. It allowed them to skip forward: they’re now where they would have expected to be two years down the road, in the absence of pandemic.
Coursera has already capitalized on these circumstances: it doubled its valuation and is considering going public in 2021.
You can find a complete overview of how MOOCs did this year in By The Numbers: MOOCs in 2020. And you can learn more about individual MOOC providers in Class Central’s 2020 end-of-year analyses:
 We decided to leave China out of our analysis because, as we learned more about Chinese online education, we realized that the metrics we’d like to present are: (1) sometimes unavailable, (2) sometimes available but impossible to validate to the extent we’d like, (3) sometimes reflect a view too narrow to adequately capture the overall state of MOOCs in China.