Since 2012 was pronounced 'the year of the MOOC', the Massive Open Online Course is a model that has consistently been cited as the 'next big thing' by people pondering the future of Higher Education. Indeed back when we gave our Five Predictions for Academic Publishing at the beginning of this year we earmarked MOOCs as being a key trend for publishers to watch. As of this year the three biggest MOOCs (EdX, Coursera and Udacity) have delivered courses to 12 million people, and claim that a lot of those students come from the developing world, where the need for access to high quality education is seen to be most pressing.

As a concept the MOOC has powerful advocates. Significant venture capital funding for Coursera and Udacity (the former closed a mammoth Series B funding round at the end of last year) shows that Silicon Valley strongly supports the model's distributed, technology-centred delivery of education. EdX, which unlike its two biggest competitors has taken the non-profit path, draws on its founding partners, Harvard and MIT, for the content and reputation it needs to attract students. Yet like all fashionable ideas, MOOCs also have their detractors. Critics point to high drop-out rates of students taking online courses (sometimes as high as 90%, they claim), while others make the point that in MOOCs' success risks hollowing out Higher Education, especially in the developing world. If a student can take an MIT course online, they argue, why should they bother to take a course from their local institution?

Nevertheless, with millions of students signed up, relatively deep pockets and strong institutional support it seems that MOOCs are here to stay. It also makes them a theoretically lucrative market for textbook publishers. As we reported earlier this year five major publishers are conducting a pilot with Coursera, while Elsevier enjoys a relatively close relationship with EdX. The opportunities are tempting: if MOOCs are driving an uptick in people taking Higher Education-level courses then these students will be in need of content to supplement the video lectures and notes they provide as part of the course. Ergo they represent an expanded textbook market, and as online students a potential source of e-textbook sales.

Or will they? In June of last year, a team of Coursera researchers published an intriguing paper looking directly at the MOOC 'retention problem', which challenged some previously dearly held assumptions about why students engage with them. The major MOOCs' strategic focus on broadening access to and reducing the cost of education had led many involved in them to assume that students came to them for the 'credits'. A student enrolling on a MOOC course did so to get a qualification that it would otherwise be too expensive or inaccessible, with the idea that this would improve their professional prospects. What Coursera's researchers discovered instead was that a very high proportion of students were there for lifestyle reasons. They saw their involvement as the equivalent of an evening or extramural class. This finding chimed with the results of another survey cited in The Economist that said that 70% of MOOC students were already graduates. Another key part of the findings was that what attracted this category of students was not the credit but the content. These were students who might not complete the homework or participate in online discussions, but they would certainly watch the videos through which the 'taught' elements of their course were conveyed.

This presents a challenge both to MOOCs themselves and to the publishers who see them as being a market opportunity. For a MOOC a student who signs up for a course to watch the lectures but doesn't do the assessments is classed as a dropout, even if as an individual they have been greatly enriched by the experience. For a publisher it's just possible that students of this type reduce rather than increase demand for educational content. Instead of buying a book on astronomy or ancient Athens, the student signs up for an online course and watches the videos instead.

Just as MOOCs themselves are starting to address this problem directly, however, publishers could as well. In the past year there has been an upsurge in MOOCs signing partnerships with formal institutions who contract them to deliver training and education to specific groups. For example Saudi Arabia recently signed a deal with EdX that will see it offer online courses to the country's unemployed. In a different vein Udacity's efforts seem to be crystallising around offering specialized courses with tangible benefits, such as its Data Science program.

In this environment for publishers MOOCs are beginning to look like less of an opportunity to re-sell existing textbook than look at new ways to present and monetize education content. For example, instead of selling whole textbooks they could sell partworks, or 'primer' editions that re-cap key points for popular courses. They could even consider putting the type of multimedia content that is so popular among MOOC learners at the heart of their content strategy. Instead of a book, why not offer a series of videos or podcasts taken from or based on books in their back catalogues.

If MOOCs themselves are based on delivering education to people in a more convenient if fragmented form, then it's just possible that the publishers who thrive alongside them will take a similar view of their content.