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Why Are MOOCs a Trend: Facts and Figures

12 minutes

The technological revolution has brought much opportunity in many areas, opening a new communication channel to traditional human interactions. The realm of education is not excluded from the changes heralded by communication technology. Along with a wave of technology-based innovations that transform our traditional world have come Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).


In the last four years, the number of MOOCs offered has soared from less than 10 to more than 4,200, with over 1,800 of those courses coming in 2015 alone.1,2

MOOC growth from 2012 till 2016

Graphic by Class Central2

The above chart illustrates the nearly exponential growth of MOOCs in the last four years.

Offered courses run the gamut of disciplinary options, as indicated in the graph below. The most popular courses are introductory statistics and computer science, and the most popular overall MOOC area is Business and Management, with 17% of all courses.1 The sciences and social sciences run in second and third place, with around 11% of total courses in each of those areas.

MOOCs distribution by subjects

Graphic by Class Central2

The above graphic shows that all major disciplines and many minor ones are represented among the MOOCs.

A convenient list of all MOOCs is compiled by Class Central, a website dedicated to MOOCs. There, you can find all MOOCs regardless of where each one is offered, as well as articles for creating quality MOOCs, articles on MOOC trends, and other useful MOOC information and data.


The number of students enrolled in MOOCs has skyrocketed along with the number of course offerings. In 2015, 35 million students – more than double the 2014 number of 17 million – had enrolled in at least one course.2

As for students’ prior educational background, it’s roughly one third of high school students, one third of bachelor degree graduates, and yet another one third holding a master’s degree and higher.3

The current typical MOOC class size comes in at around 25,000, with as many as 230,000 enrolled students possible in some of the more popular courses. Student completion rates vary, with the most common being around 15% and some courses reporting 40% completion or even higher.4 An income-generating strategy of charging a small fee for course completion certificates turns out to have had another bonus effect: higher completion rates. Even when the fee is small, completion rates significantly rise.5


MOOCs are generally developed by professors at reputable universities and offered through private course platforms. Over 550 universities are represented in the MOOCs. The top-rated universities for MOOCs, each of which has produced more than five courses, follows:

  • Santa Fe Institute
  • Monash University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • San Jose State University
  • Australian National University
  • Yale University
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Melbourne
  • University of Queensland
  • Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania6

Clearly, this is not the typical list of “top ten” universities, but in the world of MOOCs, these are the ones leading the way.

Design and Delivery

In the beginning, MOOCs were a reflection of the traditional classroom. They ran on semesters, and the class progressed as a unit through the semester. Today, scholars have reconceptualized the quality MOOC: It is audience-sensitive, aimed at the adult learner with a busy life rather than the college student with only college to do. It offers all material readily available, has self-contained modules, is shorter, is both structured and unstructured to accommodate learning time commitments, implies social interaction, contains adult content, and offers badges for progress along the way rather than only a certificate of completion at the end. Each of these strategies has been shown to increase student attention, reduce attrition, and contribute to student success in the MOOC.7

The most common delivery platforms include Coursera, edX and Udacity. Coursera leads the way, with more student sign-ups in 2014 than all other providers combined, and just under half of all MOOC students in 2015.5 However, Udacity is growing, taking its vast supply of MOOCs along with it. It has a new location in China and a new service recently introduced in the US, where students in Udacity’s nanodegree program can visit physical locations to interact with peers and mentors in a live environment.8

Cost and Value

In 2014, the MOOC market was valued at US$1.13 billion globally, with a forecasted value of US$7.69 billion by 2019.9

The true cost of MOOCs is not easy to pin down. In terms of delivery, MOOCs are free to students, with “free” defined loosely. That is, the course itself is free, but proctored exams, certificates, and relevant degree programs offered by the organization housing the course may carry quite a price tag.

MOOCs may be free to take, but they are definitely not free to create. Again, reliable figures are difficult to locate, partly because the MOOC draws from existing university resources. Program planning, course development, delivery, and maintenance, and institutional overhead costs add up quickly to easily reach $50,000 and exceed $250,000, depending on the course.9 At the same time, MOOC production means the faculty member is taking time away from institutionally credentialed programs and research, inflating the above figures even further when considering these hidden costs.10

MOOCs were not conceptualized primarily as a revenue generator. MOOCs are free for the students, so don’t generate a lot of direct income. Universities participate because they have a chance to keep abreast of current social trends by creating MOOCs, and they have an opportunity to grow their brands.11

The private course platforms are becoming more creative in terms of generating revenue from MOOCs.9 Coursera launched Signature Track last year, a certificate program that allows students to pay between $30 and $100 for a certificate of completion for a course. They generated US$4 million in the first year with this strategy. Additional revenue-generating strategies are in the works at Coursera.11

Analysts have identified seven ways that MOOCs can generate revenue. They are as follows:

  1. Licensing MOOC platforms. EdX and Coursera have partnered with educational institutions for licensing, generating $50,000 per course and $10,000 per additional course on edX.
  2. Course design and consulting. Universities can pay for consultants and course designers to help develop courses.
  3. Certifications. Students can pay for certifications upon completing courses. The fee is small compared with the tuition for a course at a university.
  4. Paid examination. To receive college credit, students must pay for the final exam. This is one of the most popular revenue generators for MOOC providers.
  5. Employer-sponsored courses. Corporations can use MOOCs to provide specialized training, such as Google providing HTML5 game development training via Udacity in an effort to create more trained professional game developers.
  6. Personalized student profiles. Students can pay a fee in some MOOCs to create personalized profiles that have all of their coursework and certifications in one secure, verified place.
  7. Paid courses. The fees are typically lower than a standard university course.9
  8. Some of these alternatives are already commonly in use, and some exist but are not yet commonplace.

MOOCs in Employment

The true value of MOOCs in terms of advancement in the real world remains to be seen. A MOOC degree isn’t exactly commonplace in the working world just yet, and most employers have never heard of them. Nonetheless, there are some very good reasons to participate in MOOCs from a professional standpoint.

For the high school student with sights set on college, participating in MOOCs offers several advantages. First, students can gauge their interest in possible majors before even getting to college. Sometimes switching majors is easy, but sometimes, especially if already a year or two into the program, it may not be so easy to switch schools, such as from business to chemistry. A MOOC can be a great way to give students a better idea of what they want to, and don’t want to, study in college. Second, MOOCs give high school students exposure to a college environment. Since MOOCs are taught by actual professors, students gain insight to the quality of teaching and the level of learning expectations college demands. This allows students a glimpse of life as a major in a certain discipline, and how that differs from being a major in a different discipline. Students can also develop insight into particular professors, gaining the upper hand in selecting courses once they arrive on campus. These are important considerations in learning to navigate academia. Third, taking a MOOC shows college admissions officers that students are indeed interested in their own education. It shows that the student is willing to go above and beyond to pursue initiative and quench intellectual curiosity, both desirable traits in the university classroom. In all of these ways, college-bound high school students can benefit profoundly from enrolling in MOOCs.12

For the career-minded, MOOCs also offer their share of pluses. They can provide new skills to showcase on a resume and in an interview. Spin it properly, and just about any course can contribute to your skillset. You can also list your completed courses under “Professional Development” in your resume and LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn will even display badges on your profile from completed MOOCs. While you may not feel the need to keep your MOOC certificate of completion handy to show a potential employer, it can certainly be made available upon request. If the course you took directly relates to your field or gives you relevant new skills for a position you’re seeking, you will definitely want to highlight that in employment discussions. However you choose to present it, keep in mind that employers want to see hands-on experience in the real world rather than merely a list of classes you’ve taken, so be sure to be ready to explain just what real-life contributions you can offer to the company with your new skills. A MOOC certificate won’t replace a traditional degree, but it can augment your traditional education with targeted, current training. This also demonstrates your commitment to your skills, your career, and staying current in your field.13 Further, mandatory continuing education in some fields can also be accomplished with a MOOC, perhaps more conveniently than by traditional means.14 Indeed, MOOCs can be quite beneficial to career advancement, though not necessarily via the most direct means.

MOOC Penetration

Whatever the perceived value to the MOOC student, organizations and institutions around the globe are recognizing the potential of MOOCs and making it easier for people to participate. For example, every citizen of Singapore over the age of 25 gets a $500 credit from the Singapore government to take a MOOC.8 Further, increasing numbers of universities are offering college credit and even full degrees via MOOCs. The University of Colorado offers six credits for completing its data warehousing specialization course on Coursera. The University of Illinois is offering a new MOOC-based Master’s degree in Data Science via Coursera. Finally, the University of the People, which is a tuition-free, accredited, online university, offers an online MBA program.8

MOOCs are relatively new in the academic environment but appear to be here to stay. Their numbers are only increasing, both in terms of MOOCs being offered and number of students enrolled. They aren’t making a lot of people a lot of money just yet, but new markets are emerging based on this technological resource. With people’s inherent knack for making money where there appears none is to be made, surely creative revenue generation will eventually take hold. Let’s just hope that the academic integrity MOOCs currently boast isn’t compromised in the search for profit.


  1. Wexler E. MOOCs are Still Rising, at Least in Numbers (CHE). Online Education Forum 2015; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  2. Shah D. By the Numbers: MOOCS in 2015. 2015 MOOC Roundup Series 2015, December 21; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  3. Scott W. MOOC: Today and Tomorrow 2015, December 11; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  4. MOOC Completion Rates: The Data. 2015, June 12; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  5. Fee Payments Lift MOOC Completion Rates. Accessed May 1, 2016.
  6. Shah D. MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers. Postsecondary Learning 2015, December 28; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  7. Clark D. 8 Ways to Design Sticky MOOCs. 2016, May 9; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  8. Lequerica AA. MOOCWatch April 2016: Udacity’s Growth. MOOCWatch 2016; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  9. Jesse. How do MOOCs Make Money? 2015, Dec 9; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  10. Bates T. Strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs: Part 3, branding and cost. 2014, November 15; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  11. Custer S. How are universities evolving and earning revenue from MOOCs? News and business analysis for Professionals in International Education 2014, April 4; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  12. Friedman J. 3 Reasons to Try Out MOOCs Before Applying to College. Education May 12, 2016; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  13. Cavazos N. Can MOOC’s Help Your Career? 2014, July 17; Accessed May 19, 2016.
  14. Lee H, Stangl D. Taking a Chance in the Classroom: Professional Development MOOCs for Teachers of Statistics in K-12. Chance. 2015;28(3):56-63.
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