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The Many Uses of MOOCs

Massive open online courses present a cost-effective way for companies to provide their workers with training and development opportunities, but experts say there are also marketing and recruiting opportunities for HR leaders willing to pursue them.

Monday, January 20, 2014
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In the past few years, the massive, open online course has become a worldwide phenomenon in online education, but their application in the business world has only just begun.

Alan Ruby, senior fellow with the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, has been studying the progression of MOOC users by analyzing the movement of a million users through 16 Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. Emerging results have found that course completion of MOOCs is low, but Ruby says this should not deter HR professionals from recommending MOOCs to their employees.

"[But] when people are using a MOOC to upgrade their knowledge on something specific for their industry, the completion rate is better," says Ruby, adding that courses such as operations management showed much higher completion rates that the 4-percent average revealed in the study.

And, despite the relatively low completion rates, Ruby says MOOCs offer some very appealing reasons for organizations to turn to them to help educate their workers.

"They're free, online and can be done at one's own pace," he says.

Curtis J. Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University in Bloomington, agrees.

"There are dozens of ways MOOCs find relevance on work sites," he says, after stressing the fact that the technology is still in its infancy. "We're just at the first stages of discovering those possibilities in the areas of professional development, teaching skills and competencies."

For the unitiated, if a video course and a podcast got married by a blog in a forum, the likely result would be a MOOC.

"It's a unique marriage of different technologies," says Bonk.

He says MOOCs are finding a niche in corporate training and professional development arenas by giving users the opportunity to take part in a smorgasbord of opportunity -- or not. "People can pick and choose the knowledge they don't already have," he says.

In fact, letting employees know that major universities are offering free or low-cost MOOCs for professional development is a way of showing that their company cares about them, he says.

"The directors of corporations should be mining some of these MOOCs for their employees," Bonk says. "Look at what's available and provide monthly notes in a newsletter – spotlight the links to those resources; maybe highlight a MOOC of the month – but make employees aware of MOOCs that you see as relevant to your organization, because these are free resources you might be able to tap into and use."

When shopping for MOOCs, says Ruby, the world is your oyster.

"You can sort by work load, prerequisite, level," he says, "and the big providers all have home pages and listings. Or you can even shop by university."

However, he advises HR to make informed choices before unleashing a barrage of MOOCs on their employees. "The most valuable thing you're dealing with is your employees' time, and you should be careful not to invest that time in a course that doesn't provide what they need."

He says the accreditation associated with the offerings should also be carefully considered.

"Most folks don't get a degree or course credit for completion [of a MOOC]," he says. "Instead, they're relying upon an externally evaluated assessment or peer assessment."

However, this issue is likely to be resolved as certification for completing MOOCs is evolving and will likely gain prevalence in the next few years. According to Bonk, "We will see a heavy emphasis on taking three or four MOOCs and getting certificates, which will serve a useful purpose on people's resumes."

The amount of money required in participating in a MOOC can also influence completion rates, at least according to one MOOC provider.

Coursera, offered through Stanford University, offers "Signature Track" MOOCs that provide verified certificates to users upon successful completion. According to Coursera President Lila Ibrahim during a speech at George Washington University last November, completion rates for Signature Track courses are higher when users put money down.

"Completion rates are 88 percent if they pay," she said. "If they don't pay, it's about 65 percent for the verified certificate. People are more likely to complete the class if they're committed."

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"Universities that are touting the low completion rates are missing the point on how MOOCs will impact employers," says Jeanne Meister, a partner with New York-based Future Workplace and founder of the 2020 Workplace Network.

The 2020 Workplace Network consists of a consortium of 45 major companies, and 90 percent of them are currently looking at the MOOC phenomenon through two different lenses, says Meister.

"The first is research mode," she says. "Before rushing to create partnerships, we're studying how MOOCs are designed specifically around training analytics, how people are learning and what they can learn from the design to impact the way open online courses are designed in the future."

The second way, Meister says, is for recruiting purposes.

"[If] a corporation is looking for someone with a hard-to-find skill or someone who knows certain programming software," she says, "they'll create a MOOC and use that as a way to find who they're looking for in the pool of those who finish the course.

"It's an innovative way to recruit," she says, "and think of the cost savings on formal recruitment efforts."

Meister says the current partnership between Mountain View, Calif.-based Khan Academy and banking giant Bank of America is a good example of a company creating a partnership for marketing purposes. An increasing number of companies are also building a strategy around MOOCs as a way to engage customers, employees and everyone else in the world.

"It's a game-changer," she says.

But before the game can truly change, the governance around how HR and business leaders incent learners needs to continue to improve, says Jenny Dearborn, vice president of San Francisco-based Cloud Talent Success and chief learning officer at SuccessFactors. 

"If learners can acquire the knowledge they need without completing a course," she says, "then they shouldn't have to go through the motions – MOOC or otherwise. Learners should be held accountable to complete job-required certifications and accreditations, but not to complete courses irrelevant to success in their roles."

Dearborn says the impersonal nature of MOOCs is indeed a weakness of the concept, but one which can be overcome with the appropriate amount of corporate commitment.

"If you're going to have a course [with] 10,000 learners," she says, "you'll need 400 to 500 facilitators to have discussion groups of 20 of 25 learners. Given that commitment, companies will need to know exactly why they are using a MOOC and how it will drive business results."

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