For most people, it was just a normal day but a new way of learning was officially named that day. Something with a huge potential of growth and viral interest. It took the next 4 years to get to fame — so much so that 2012 was called “the year of MOOCs”. As time progressed, the idea of MOOCs faced its ups and downs but never really grew less significant. Now, thanks to the COVID19 pandemic, almost 12 years later MOOCs have become the staple of learning and education.

The first MOOC

So let’s go back to the beginning — The when is known, now let’s look at the where, why, and how. The word ‘MOOCs’ was coined in response to a course titled “Connectivism and Connectivity Knowledge” by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. The numbers of this very first MOOC itself clearly explain its true potential and power — When held in class at the University of Manitoba, a meagre 25 participants attended; a whooping 2,300 participants attended the same online.

By the end of the year 2011, Stanford offered 3 courses online — one of the courses, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” reached a colossal 160,000 enrollments, and was completed by over 20,000 participants. This was when people started understanding the sheer reach and extent of MOOCs. This form of learning could reach places where a normal course learning was either difficult or impossible. It could serve the people who wanted to learn but had less time or resources. Above all, to those with a passion to learn, it broke the barriers for them.

The big three — Udacity, Coursera and edX

Towards the beginning of 2012, one of the instructors of the course, Sebastien Thrune from Stanford kick-started Udacity which was founded in June 2011. Udacity began offering programs and courses for free. Shortly afterwards, the new celebrity and highly acclaimed Machine Learning teacher Andrew Ng with another colleague started the company which is now a common household name — Coursera. (The famous Machine Learning course, responsible for Coursera’s fame, continues to remain one of the most popular courses ever, you can find the same here)Coursera partnered with various acclaimed institutions and universities to prepare courses and offer them online.

All this importance to Stanford as seen above was not something which could be overlooked by two other large, highly acclaimed universities -Harvard and MIT. MIT started an MITx platform for MOOCs which then evolved to edX when they teamed up with Harvard.

The reason the year 2012 was called the year of MOOCs was because it was the year Coursera, edX, and Udacity officially started their courses. The growth here was explosive. Coursera started its first courses on April 23rd and by August had over a million learners.

 2 months later, they had more than 33 university partners and over 200 courses of which 100 were already available. Such growth was unprecedented in the history of education. As this became a viral phenomenon which was booming, the Fear Of Missing Out(FOMO) was rampant amongst corporates in Silicon Valley. Each of the companies raised millions of dollars as investments to get their share of profits from a new and booming market. 

It’s fascinating that the word MOOCs was unheard of towards the end of 2011, but as 2012 ended the world had more than 4 million online learners, more than 250 courses and 40 universities creating content that could reach masses.

The Rise of Udemy

As conventional MOOCs were growing with universities and big organizations, Udemy was also rising. Not with the same propaganda and noise but was also redefining learning. Udemy was born with a slightly different mission in 2010, 2 years before the complete rise of MOOCs.

In 2007, Udemy founder Eren Bali created software which was meant to be a live virtual classroom. The site was launched in February and did not focus on Universities and Professors to provide lessons. Rather it acted as a platform where anyone who was skilled in a field could put up courses which would be bought by people wishing to learn something new. 

This was a great idea since it motivated the masses to churn out content and not just consume it. This gave a face to the idea that you can learn anything you want and there are people in the world who can teach you those skills, even if they are not taught in a university or in the ‘normal’ definition of higher education. This content was bought, used, rated and promoted by learners all over the world. 

Within a few months of launching The Academy of You, Udemy managed to compile 2000 courses from around 1000 instructors and 10,000 odd signed up users. The system was great for content creators as it acted as a means of passive income and helped learners get knowledge into niche topics which were not covered in MOOCs.

The creation of Teachable

Udemy, however, wasn’t the only platform which worked in a non-traditional way. In 2014, Fedora was created — a platform to sell and buy courses. It was an online marketplace of education of sorts. Fedora, however, was different from Udemy. It provided you with resources to create such courses by uploading videos, other learning materials, interacting with learners and of course, collecting the fees for enrollment. 

Fedora’s birth has a rather interesting story to it as well. The founder, Ankur Nagpal was unhappy with making and selling courses on Udemy which also put the Udemy brand to his content. He created Fedora in response to that. In 2015 it was renamed — Teachable. Since then Teachable has had a huge audience with 12000 clients, over 125000 courses and 10 million students. Other platforms with a similar goal like Podia have also emerged since then.

A few years later…

By 2018, MOOCs grew in an unexpected direction. The number of new users had slumped but revenue had grown as more people started paying for good content. This happened because the market for MOOCs was maturing and the initial hype of less supply and more demand was getting balanced as more providers were entering the market. In 2018, MOOCs started focusing on online degrees. Learners enjoyed 3 key benefits as compared to the conventional University set up — they were cheaper, more flexible and easier to get admission to. 

By 2018, Coursera led the race with over 37 million registered users, and edX had 18 million. Other platforms like XuetangX launched in 2013 in China had over 14 million users. More than 900 universities around the World were part of MOOCs and launched 11.4k MOOCs. Lastly, over 10,000 students signed up for online degrees.

COVID19 in 2020

2020 will change MOOCs forever. Ever since the global pandemic, MOOCs have seen much higher traffic, registrations and completion rates. Many firms have also responded to the current situation in a positive way. For example, Coursera in March announced that they will be offering free catalog courses for institutions affected by the lockdown. 

Coursera is also planning to launch Live2Coursera towards the end of the year. This will act as a link between online live lessons and private, restricted classrooms Coursera also plans on offering a similar catalog to governments that can be provided to unemployed individuals. I see this measure as the prelude to the various methods created to reduce the harm caused by the rise of automation. Nevertheless, I digress, that is another article altogether. EdX has also offered catalog of free courses and codes to access some courses for free. These are some examples — hundreds of MOOC providers, big or small, have taken similar steps.

Rise of MOOCs in India and China

India and China are the two countries that have the majority of learning and employable population. Both these countries have taken great leaps and bounds towards MOOCs.

In July 2017, the President of India launched SWAYAM, an initiative under the Ministry of Human Resource Development to cover high school, college-level and skill-based courses. The program quickly skyrocketed to 10 million users within 2 years. Various Indian private companies like Byju’s and Unacademy are disrupting the online learning space.

China’s XuetangX has made remarkable progress in the field of MOOCs and is quickly growing and capturing a huge market share. Some new innovative offerings have also stemmed from China. For instance, the platform Dedao applied MOOC format to podcasts — something which is rather revolutionary and unorthodox.


Thanks to MOOCs, education is actually becoming accessible and attainable for the most remote and at-risk population. With the world becoming more competitive every day and university education cost rising the way it is, very soon a necessity like a university education will be out of reach for even the middle class.

Our education system has been long due for a change. 2020 is the year when learners and educators are being pushed to adapt to new forms of learning. It is certain that MOOCs will be part of our ‘new normal’ for learning. These changes are needed. So if you are still not accustomed to learning online and designing your own education, you may need to give your future a good thought.

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