A recent opinion piece headlined "Moocs are a solution in search of a problem" by Chris Fellingham, who is strategy and research manager at FutureLearn, got a response from true MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes.
According to Chris Fellingham, MOOCs " arose from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year. Out of idle curiosity, they wanted to see what would happen if they dumped their courses, lectures and all, online for anyone to take." According to this story, MOOCs then searched for a problem to solve - providing new skills to university graduates, say, or offering new kinds of certificates. None of that is my experience, nor is it even true outside the narrow bounds of Coursera and Udacity. MOOCs were created in order top provide access to learning using open educational resources, modeling the connectivist philosophy George Siemens and I had been working on for a number of years. The problem of access is real. It exists because the people writing in places like Times Higher Education do not consider access to be a problem at all.
Fellingham's main premise is that since "A common question to start-up founders is: 'What problem does this solve?'” Then, MOOCs are a solution in want of a problem.
As Downes counters, the MOOC did not emerge initially "from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year." Those Stanford courses came later, but did get a lot more attention in the media than the earlier MOOCs.
One problem that MOOCs can still help solve is access to learning. The "democratizing of knowledge" may sound lofty, but it is real. The Internet itself allowed for this in an informal learning way, but a MOOC is a much more formal approach - and an important one.
That first "O" in a Massive Open Online Course has taken a beating in the years since those first MOOCs. I would say that the majority of courses labeled as MOOCs today (such as those in Coursera and other large providers) are still massive online courses, but they are not open.
As Coursera, edX, Udacity and Fellingham's own FutureLearn make more connections and deals with universities in order to have a business model, their course become less open in the true OER sense.
Luckily, many of these courses are still free when taken without credit concerns. But free in cost is just one aspect of OPEN Educational resources.
I don't have issues with providers wanting to make a profit with their courses. But I am concerned with 1) those courses being called MOOCs when they are MOCs, and 2) that I am seeing fewer truly open courses being offered by large universities and the biggest providers.
Alternative certifications and degrees, such as MicroMasters and nanodegrees, have a place in higher ed and they owe much to the MOOC rEvolution.
New online education companies keep appearing. No connections to a university, but possibly connections with employers also have a place in providing specific training in what employers want - which educators have sadly discovered is often not what they teach.
Many of the problems in education and in online education from a decade ago still exist. The solutions are still evolving.