MOOCs' forgotten older sibling rises to take the online education throne

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on April 10, 2014

From The News Desk

MOOCs have hit that low point of the Gartner Hype Cycle. The masses -- including the "godfather" of MOOCs -- have disavowed them. They're no longer being trumpeted as a great democratizing force and potential savior of higher education. Now, they're just a "lousy product."

And from the ashes of MOOCs comes something far less sexy: Online skills classes. Two of the biggest heavyweights, Lynda and Pluralsight, announced major acquisitions that broaden the scope of their offerings and bring them closer into competition than ever before.

Lynda ponied up a reported $20 million for its second-ever acquisition, a programming curriculum called Compilr.

Close on Lynda's heels, Pluralsight made its fourth acquisition in under a year, the largest one to date, dropping $45 million on creative skills company Digital-Tutors. This adds to Pluralsight's other new offerings with PeepCode and Tekpub developer courses and TrainSignal IT classes.

In their efforts to own online technical education, Lynda and Pluralsight look more like each other every day. Lynda initially started as a repository for creative skills classes on Photoshop and video editing and the like. With its Compilr acquisition it has moved firmly into the professional programming space, trying to carve out more expertise than the beginner and intermediary coding classes it already offered. Pluralsight, by contrast, started as online classes for developers. But with all its new acquisitions, particularly Digital Tutors, it has broadened out into creative skills.

It's a natural progression for both companies since they each raised venture in the past two years, Lynda a whopping $103 million and Pluralsight a humbler $30 million. Prior to that, both companies had bootstrapped, having gotten their starts in a rather unconventional tech location: The classroom. Pluralsight and Lynda's founders each taught skills classes, in old traditional brick-and-mortar buildings, before realizing they could make far more money moving said classes online.

So why are Pluralsight and Lynda growing rapidly at a time when MOOCs are on the decline? They're focused on teaching technical skills as opposed to academic learning. This style of online education is proving lucrative because companies are willing to pay for their employees to brush up on new talents. At the same time, individuals are motivated to finish the classes on their own time because it helps them better their professional standing and become a more appealing job candidate.

Between the two companies, Lynda has a bigger stockpile of cash, which should make Pluralsight nervous. Lynda also appears to be just getting started on acquisitions with only two under its belt and boatloads more cash where that came from, whereas Pluralsight is nearing the end of its shopping spree having spent more than $68.6 million on acquisitions so far.

One thing is for sure: The two are invading each others' turfs and becoming rather homogenous. Let the boring game of technical online education thrones begin.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]