The discussion about MOOCs and their impact on higher education has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. The fear and foreboding that accompanied MOOCs’ explosive debut has dissipated. It seems that the MOOC storm has passed.

Much of that hype was predicated on the expectation that these new free courses were going to replace traditionally delivered higher education and reduce the price of pursuing degrees. There was also a belief that these courses would undermine or “unbundle” the traditional courseload and curriculum at colleges and universities. In an article in the New York Times proclaiming 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, predicted: “a year from now, campuses will give credit for people with edX certificates.” It hasn’t turned out that way.

But even as the media’s and as higher education’s attention on MOOCs has faded, the phenomenon has not. The Coursera website lists “14.2 million Courserians” as I write this. Coursera reports that it is adding approximately 500,000 new students per month. Other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity also continue to grow dramatically.

So what does it mean that both of these things are true: that the MOOC phenomenon continues (even though attention on it has not) and that universities have not been radically impacted? One answer could be that not enough time has passed. That is surely true. But another possible answer, and the one I would like to introduce here, is that these developments are happening in different markets that are currently well insulated from one another.

First, let me define a market in its most simple sense, as an environment where some people provide a service and some consume that service. There is supply and demand. For the MOOCs, the providers are typically faculty members, often associated with a university (but not always), providing instruction and associated tools to individual learners connected to the Internet from anywhere in the world.  So the prototypical MOOC is what is often called in the web-economy a business-to-consumer offering. Of course, universities providing instruction face-to-face also operate in a business-to-consumer marketplace, with their faculty creating courses to be offered to enrolled students. In the electronic domain, universities are also providing instruction through MOOC platforms to dispersed individual learners. But universities are also – at least potentially – consumers of MOOCs (or, more likely, of modular components of MOOCs) in what would then be a business-to-business offering. In that scenario, universities would use courses or course components created elsewhere to help teach registered students more effectively and/or less expensively.

These very different marketplaces are depicted in the diagram below.

If you think about the overall environment associated with MOOCs in these four quadrants, some distinctions emerge. First, much of the attention to-date has been focused on the supply side. Professors love the idea of being the instructor for thousands or hundreds of thousands of students. And institutions, by joining Coursera or edX, have rushed to become the providers of courses used by students all over the world. This is the left side of the diagram.

On the demand side, nearly all of the activity has been directed toward serving individuals – the lower right quadrant. These are the hundreds of thousands of people who are signing up for these courses for almost as many reasons: Curiosity. To learn about something interesting. To get a certificate of accomplishment. To strengthen their skills in something valued at their workplace. There are countless testimonials to the positive impact and experiences of individuals who have taken and completed these courses.

The upper right quadrant represents the use of technology-enhanced learning tools provided by institutions to/through other institutions to deliver instruction to registered students pursuing a degree (the business-to-business market).  There is very little activity going on in this quadrant, for reasons that I will attempt to explain in a future post.  For now, the point I would like to emphasize is that these are very different marketplaces and they are currently shielded from one another, mainly because of the importance of credentialing and the need for students to get a degree. For the most part, students cannot substitute the completion of courses on a MOOC for credits toward a degree, nor can they substitute a sequence of completed courses from a MOOC for a degree. Consequently, actions taken by suppliers and consumers in one of these marketplaces do not have a direct impact on the other.

In my opinion, considerable misunderstanding about the likely long-term impact of transformative technological forces on higher education derives from the fact that people do not distinguish between these marketplaces. People are talking by each other. For example, for students in the lower right quadrant, it truly does not matter if the completion rate of a course is 1% or 99%. Those students have many reasons for taking or trying out a course. For registered, paying students pursuing a degree, however – the upper right quadrant – completion rates are supremely important.

To apply the same standards to judge both markets is misleading and may be preventing institutions from seeing the opportunity that current web forces make possible. The same forces that enable 100,000 students to take a MOOC could be harnessed, if done thoughtfully and in ways consistent with college and university values, to make some courses taught in institutional settings both more effective and less costly on a per student basis. College and university leadership and their faculty should be looking for creative ways to become active in the upper right quadrant to use the best tools and content available anywhere on the web to improve the overall student experience – an experience that includes both the learning outcomes and the costs associated with getting that learning experience.

Compared to 2012, the conversation on campuses about MOOCs has changed dramatically. For many, the storm has passed. But the fact that the impact of MOOCs on traditional higher education has thus far been modest ignores the fact that MOOCs continue to grow and evolve. Colleges and universities should continue to watch MOOCs and their evolution for ways that they can improve learning outcomes and decrease costs for degree-seeking students, both on-campus and off.