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Michael Curry



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Time for a fresh look at MOOCs?


MOOCs – otherwise known as Massive Open Online Course – are accessible to students anywhere in the world at no cost via the internet. The leading lights in this market, such as Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn, deliver existing course content from leading traditional universities.

The ambition for many of those contributing to their development was to democratise education globally and offer world class learning to students who otherwise could never hope to access a university education.

The reality, though, is somewhat different, with a large proportion of MOOC students logging on from developed countries. Nonetheless, the innovation has given millions of people around the world access to a university education.

The question for developed markets like the UK is what value MOOCs can create, either for individuals or society at large. To date, the vast majority of MOOCs have been centred on academic disciplines often with formal exams and, in some cases, even full degree qualifications. In a world where further education is free, the cost to the student is their time – a valuable commodity, especially to young people entering the job market – so courses make for a serious time investment that demands a serious return.

Whilst the MOOC market is still in its infancy, models for learning, content development and monetisation are evolving all the time. New branches are emerging to serve specific sectors, one of the latest being for core professional skills – accounting, human resources and marketing.

Almost all companies need these disciplines; they benefit from an established set of standards and best practise led by respected awarding bodies such as the Association of Accounting Technicians, the Chartered Institute of Professional Development, and the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing respectively.

Criteria for success

So what are the criteria for a truly successful skills MOOC? Looking to the traditional professional training market provides most of the answers: they lead towards a qualification that employers value, they are based on widely adopted standards, they instil a sense of ethics and responsibility, and they are academically rigorous. It goes without saying that they are free to access but there is particular benefit in them being portable – the next generation of professionals expect this accessibility and it provides the freedom to study when and where they can find the time.

Certainly, from a business and training perspective, MOOCs are yet another example of technology empowering consumers – in this case, to take charge of their careers. Whilst it may lead to more requests for professional training, companies can use the opportunity to gauge an employee’s aptitude and commitment through their self test results before assigning training budgets. Already, we are seeing this technology being applied to skills testing in the workplace – a valuable tool for recruitment and training needs analysis – so it seems, in the long term, the surprise winners in this story may be employers and the talent development pipeline.

But don’t worry if you’re not yet up to speed with how MOOCs might work for your organisation and support your learning and development strategy. Here are some points to consider relating to what they could do for you and your people:

  • Let staff study around work commitments without eating into training budgets – this opportunity makes MOOCs a personal development option that’s easy to sign off. Why not tell employees about the opportunity and help them to find one that interests them?
  • Align MOOCs with business projects or personal development – they can help bring knowledge and new thinking into a practical setting and deliver value and impact to the organisation and employees.
  • Look for affiliations to professional bodies – MOOCs that are affiliated in this way will adhere to standards and practices that the specific industry values. Alongside this, some MOOCs can accelerate a path into more formal qualifications in a particular profession.
  • Recognise the opportunity for in-built progression tracking and self-testing – this makes it easier for progress to be transparent and for an employee to remain motivated while they complete the course. Some MOOCs offer certificates at the end, often at a small cost, which can be an opportunity for you, the employer, to celebrate and formally recognise the employee’s achievement.
  • Consider building your own MOOC – platforms are getting to the point where it is less expensive than you might think to build your own corporate MOOC. For an organisation with sufficient staff who require rigorous induction and/or ongoing skills development, it is worth considering whether a private MOOC could replace or enhance an in-person training programme. Sales and customer service functions are good examples, or you might be able to identify an off-the-shelf MOOC that closely matches your requirements.
  • Identify opportunities for peer group learning – you might decide to encourage several members of staff to take a course concurrently and support each other with study groups and projects. This overcomes the 'apathy factor' that can sometimes emerge when a course is free and there is no social penalty for lagging behind.

As the technology develops, MOOCs will become an important bridge for school and university leavers to get closer to professional careers at no cost and with little time invested. This should lead to students being better informed about their career choices and even for those reaching MOOCs later in their careers, they offer a low risk ‘taste’ of alternatives that they can even try out on their commute.

Certainly, they’re not going to usurp the position of full taught qualifications any more than MOOCs will replace university qualifications. However, they do offer alternatives in the market and have the potential to uncover untapped talent within organisations, so they’re something you definitely need to watch out for!

4 Responses

  1. MOOCs

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    Having done them, I would recommend ‘The Secret Power of Brands’, 'Understanding Modern Businesses & Organisations' and 'Managing People'. They were all excellent courses which I very much enjoyed and have put some of that learning into practice!

    I am very much looking forward to 'Innovation & Enterprise' starting in October.



  2. Interesting

    Thanks for this insight Aline. Is the integration with your LMS bespoke or have you used an API?

    Very cool that you are opening up MOOCs to your workers in a structured way.

    I often feel that just the act of learning makes people better at their jobs and it's amazing how much an 'unrelated' personal-interest course can change how people feel and improve their productivity and wellbeing at work.

    Do you allow workers to access any MOOC they want?

  3. MOOCs and talent development at TMF Group

    Thanks a lot for this article.

    Just wanted to share, we followed the same thought process you describe here. We are using MOOCs (Coursera mainly but also EdX) as an integral part of our high-potential programmes, as it allows access from top business schools. The participants are from all over the world  and so not only do they learn from the content but they also get to understand how to work as a virtual study group, skills that will be directly transferable as managers of virtual and cross-cultural teams.

    Coursera and Stanford online are integrated to our learning management system and we've had a fantastic response. Not only from developed countries but from our offices all over the world.

    It is a cost-effective, high quality, access to trainings; in a culture of entrepreneurial, empowered professional staff, … it works beautifully.

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Michael Curry


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