The evolving role of open online courses in lifelong learning journeys: the MOOC isn’t dead

This article summarises the evolving role of massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) in the context of lifelong learning and professional learning. As a form of self-paced, and in some ways self-directed, online short course, the MOOC format lends itself to a variety of pedagogical approaches. Some focus on content delivery, others on activity and learner interaction, and others emphasise learner contributions and learning communities. Courses may also be facilitated by subject matter experts, involve educator feedback, or be designed as unfacilitated learning, perhaps drawing upon peer contributions and peer-feedback instead. The experience a learner has within a MOOC can therefore vary between course developers, platforms and subject areas. This provides some challenges for the use of MOOCs as a scaffold for independent, self-directed, professional learning.

Without consideration of course-to-course coherency, there is limited deliberate programme design and therefore much greater emphasis on learners being able to discover, select and critically appraise how different courses enable them to address their learning needs. However, the role of the open, online course has shifted away from isolated individual courses and towards a learning ecosystem that enables stackable credentials, unbundled degrees and sequences of professional learning, sometimes with industry endorsement. Below is a representation of how learner journeys have developed within this learning ecosystem, providing opportunities for individuals and organisations to utilise expert-authored open-access courses for professional learning and development.

Open online courses in isolation

Learner finds a single MOOC

In the early days of MOOC creation, course authors would produce and publish a single course, usually driven by the interests of the educator rather than market-led decisions over subject content. With a limited pool of courses the numbers of learners on courses could happily exceed thousands. Learners would be seeking out courses for interest, or perhaps with specific keywords discover a single course that met their needs. Learners needed high motivation and advanced skills to take responsibility for directing their own learning, with the majority of MOOC learners typically holding a university degree beforehand. At this stage, there was limited thought of the relationship between different courses and the learning journeys that learners would take over time.

Recommendations and signposting

Simple recommendation engines suggesting other courses in the wider pool

As the pool of open access short courses grew, it was possible for course developers to signpost to related courses, yet this tended to be loosely coupled and each course still stood alone in terms of assessment and accreditation. Where courses were not deliberately signposted, course platforms would make automated recommendations based on high-level topic areas, however this rarely reflected the nuances of subject matter content or the level of learning demanded by each course. The learner was still very much required to seek out the courses that addressed the needs they identified to develop their professional competences. Instant access to individual courses enabled learners to adopt ‘just in time’ approaches to online learning, meeting learning needs that had immediate priority. However, the implication here is that without anticipating or guiding learners to address future needs, the opportunity for ‘just in case’ or ‘future proofing’ skills and knowledge wasn’t realised.

Topic groupings

Grouping courses by theme or topic

Topic groupings provided a clearer thematic and educational level structure to open short courses. These were often curated pages and collections of courses, which introduced opportunities for aligning courses to specific careers. Health and medicine professions, digital skills, computing and data science, business and education were (and remain) common high-profile topic and career areas that open access courses were grouped around. Through this curation there is also a greater awareness of market-led decisions over both course creation and on-platform promotion. The ease of access to MOOCs opened opportunities for career switchers or those seeking to keep up to date within their professional sector, drawing upon the latest research from academic institutions or developing skills expected of industry employers.

Sequences of courses with defined outcomes

Deliberate sequences of courses meeting defined objectives

The progression from topic areas to sequences of courses shows the first introduction of programme-level design to open access short course learning. Where topic groupings enabled learners to organically piece together their programme of study, defined sequences of courses enabled clearer progression of learning from course to course. Course sequences enabled learning designers to scaffold learning progression across courses, enabling depth and breadth of learning towards sequence-level learning outcomes. On Coursera these pre-defined sequences are known as Specializations, and on FutureLearn they are known as Expert Tracks. The uptake by learners of these sequences tends to be lower than individual courses, however that is to be expected as the level of commitment required is higher (more courses are expected to be completed) and the meeting of learners’ needs may be less immediate. These mini-programmes of study provided educators the opportunity to guide learners towards outcomes that may not have met their immediate learning goals, but pushed learners to consider their future goals and learning needs.

Chaining sequences of learning

Chaining sequences of learning together to create longer learning journeys

In a move to sustain lifelong learning, sequences of learning can start to be built up into fuller programmes. The course sequences could operate individually, or in any order, or as a pre-defined learner journey to provide breadth in an area of professional development. For example, three course sequences may address subject knowledge at increasing levels of complexity, or three course sequences may provide subject knowledge, practical skill development and critical reflection of practice as a rounded professional learning programme. Over time, the learner is engaged in a series of ongoing professional learning that has been structured, reducing the need for the learner to self-identify what is needed to remain current in the sector. However, there are still opportunities through ‘satellite’ short courses which provide jumping off points to explore a particular area in more depth, or entry points where learners are not intentionally seeking a programme of study, but commit to a lower-stakes, short course in the first instance. Supplementary courses alongside sequences can also enable learners to participate where minimum pre-requisites are not met, for example providing a remedial course on a particular theory or mathematical understanding required to understand the next sequence of courses. The crucial aspect here is that both individual courses and sequences of courses are enabling a broader range of learners to find a way in to continued professional learning. By providing both choice and structure, immediate needs can be addressed and long-term, perhaps unidentified, learning needs are being supported.

Online short courses within a lifelong educational ecosystem

MOOCs, sequences and degrees forming a lifelong learning journey

Open online courses now have multiple purposes and meet a range of needs over the lifetime of an individual. Immediately following schooling or university education (pre-career education), courses act as a step into professional development, as low commitment, but potentially high utility as structured, planned learning content and activity. There is greater awareness, if not full acceptance, of the value and quality of online short courses as a result of a pandemic-related increase in enrollments on major platforms (FutureLearn, 2021; Coursera, 2020; edX, 2020). Single courses, sequences and substantive short course programmes can further lead into degree and sub-degree awards through stackable routes and microcredentials. Significantly, the degree is not the end of the learning journey.

The availability of open online courses perpetuate lifelong learning opportunities and the mix of course product types to meet the diversity of learners’ needs acts as an enabler for professional development. Alongside the development of new forms of courses and programmes of study that reflect the demands of learning whilst working, there has also been greater efforts made to connect MOOCs with industry and business. The increase of business partnerships (B2B) for course development and course provision has long been discussed (Littlejohn and Hood, 2018; HolonIQ, 2021), but is only now being realised in the context of online learning pushing digital transformation of workforce development.

Why the MOOC is not dead

It is easy to claim that the definition of a MOOC as a massive, open, online course no longer applies when average numbers of learners per course are lower than the period of MOOC hype in 2012/2013 and new commercial models overtake the idealogical openness of the early MOOC ventures. However, the online course market continues to grow, and the massification of open online learning is reflected in the normalisation of this mode of study. The pedagogy of MOOCs and the deliberative design that enables mass participation, openness and flexibility in how courses are participated in remains relevant where courses are used across different programmes of study and for different learner needs. Watted and Barak (2018) compared the motivations of learners who participated in MOOCs through their degree programme, with those who were classed as ‘general participants’. Whilst the former were focused on educational goals, the latter had career development as a goal. At the time of this study, the idea of programmes of MOOCs as sequenced learning for ongoing professional development was in its infancy, but now it is possible to conceive that the two groups identified could be more homogenous.

“MOOCs should be developed to attract and support diverse populations, as each population can contribute to the knowledge and experience of the other population.”

Watted and Barak (2018:18)

The leap of commitment from single course to full programme is still significant, in time, cost and motivation. Insights from research by Gupta and Maurya (2020) suggest that for MOOCs to form part of a lifelong learning journey, first learners need to be motivated to join and then retained on courses to be motivated to complete. Course pedagogy, in particular the content and instructional quality, were identified as key factors to sustained engagement, but it is the openness of MOOCs that was noted as a key factor to encourage learners to join to begin with.

“The intention to continue using MOOCs in future is significantly predicted by the intention to complete MOOCs. This indicates that learners’ attitude towards using MOOCs gets strengthened over time and their later behaviour is influenced by their past behaviour. However, the findings also reveal that the intention to adopt MOOCs doesn’t influence the intention to continue using MOOCs. This implies that learners’ willingness to use MOOCs for the first time doesn’t guarantee their motivation to persist with MOOCs in future. To drive the continued use of MOOCs, the learners should have the intention to complete MOOCs.”

Gupta and Maurya (2020:624)

The purpose of the MOOC (or perhaps just open, online course) has developed to meet new needs for individual learners, industry professional learning and national workforce development. The relationship between individual courses, to collections and programmes of study has enabled opportunities for both defined sequences of learning and flexibility to enable learners and groups of learners to take ownership of their learning.

There remain challenges, particularly around costs associated with development and delivery borne by providers, and certification fees borne by participants, but also for educational access in terms of learners’ capabilities to identify appropriate courses for study and motivate themselves through independent learning. The responsibility of course designers and developers is to sustain the passion and quality that has set open online courses apart from other forms of self-paced learning. A focus on programme design in its broadest sense, where courses are not created in isolation, but considered as part of a professional development journey, career strategy or formal academic programme, will create a stronger offer for learners and institutions wanting to grow their online portfolio. Through this educational providers can continue to provide new avenues for independent and professional learning, providing access to education and lifelong engagement with learning.


  1. Coursera (2020). 2020 Impact Report, Coursera.
  2. edX (2020). edX Passes 110 Million Total Global Enrollments, Up 29 Million Year-Over-Year, edX press release, 15 December 2020.
  3. FutureLearn (2021). Strategic Report for the Year Ended 31 July 2020. Annual Report and Financial Statements for the Year Ended 31 July 2020. Filed with Companies House 29 April 2021.
  4. Gupta, K. P. and Maurya, H. (2020). ‘Adoption, completion and continuance of MOOCs: a longitudinal study of students’ behavioural
    intentions’, Behaviour & Information Technology, 41(3), 611-628.
  5. HolonIQ (2021). MOOCs. Then. Now. Next. Education Intelligence Unit, HolonIQ.
  6. Watted, A. and Barak, M. (2018). ‘Motivating factors of MOOC completers: Comparing between university-affiliated students and general participants’, The Internet and Higher Education, 37, 11-20.





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