As a learning consultancy, it’s important for us to stay at the forefront of the education landscape. Our clients rely on us to bring solutions that are both proven and fresh – not an easy task by any means. While not yet proven, a new learning trend that has caught my eye is MOOCs, which stands for “massively open online courses.” As many of you already know, MOOCs are free online courses taught by entrepreneurial enterprises, and now by universities as well.
What is striking about MOOCs is that they involve some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions and their star professors. In addition, the entrepreneurial enterprises at the heart of the revolution have been extremely successful in raising capital, led by Coursera which just raised over $43M in its latest round of funding. Coursera has registered four million students and started bringing in revenue around verifying students so they can take courses for credential credit.
The numbers are impressive, and anyone with knowledge of the MOOC phenomenon predicts them to continue north. However, as a member of the adult learning community, what is most surprising to me is how far behind corporate America is to higher education. Companies have embraced online learning much more than colleges and universities, with the phrase e-learning coined in the late 1990s. For the most part, corporations have been beating higher education institutions at their own game for many years.
But this seems to be changing rather quickly, and admittedly without doing enough research to make a strong case, I would argue that it all started with the social revolution that sprang up in the mid-2000s with Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Younger people have been more open to these social technologies, and because this younger generation is the target market for higher education institutions, it only makes sense that colleges and universities have a greater need to provide education that molds to these new social norms, e.g. crowdsourcing, online videos, online chat, etc.
Companies need to attract talent, however, and sooner or later some leading edge firms are going to figure out how to leverage MOOCs, either for recruiting or employee education or both. Chris Farrell of Bloomberg Businessweek wrote a great article about MOOCs entitled, “Our (Work) Education Crisis: Send In the MOOCs,” in which he argues that “the business model of low-cost, high-quality education offered by MOOCs could transform corporate training and turn the idea of lifelong learning into reality.” Chris believes that the potential MOOCs offer, from the accreditation of corporate training to their use as a recruiting tool, could be quite revolutionary.
I agree that MOOCs can be quite disruptive to corporate training, but only in certain contexts. Because MOOCs tend to be rather chaotic as participants create their own content and as courses tend to take on their own trajectory, the format won’t work for required training with very specific learning objectives and deadlines.
We help many clients develop training programs for large business transformations, and if you need 10,000 employees ready and trained to switch to a new ERP system by a certain date in order to keep the lights on, I would argue that a MOOC isn’t the best way to go. But if you’re looking for employees to acquire certain skills that could improve their performance in their current position or position them for their next opportunity within the company, a MOOC might be that organic, informal learning platform that keeps an employee engaged and positively changes their behavior.
MOOCs have many potential advantages over current online training solutions, including:
- You can organize a MOOC in any setting that has connectivity (which can include the Web, but also local connections via Wi-Fi e.g.).
- You can organize it in any language you like (taking into account the main language of your target audience).
- You can use any online tools that are relevant to your target region or that are already being used by the participants.
- You can move beyond time zones and physical boundaries.
- It can be organized as quickly as you can inform the participants (which makes it a powerful format for priority learning in e.g. aid relief).
- Contextualized content can be shared by all.
- Learning happens in a more informal setting.
- Learning can also happen incidentally thanks to the unknown knowledge that pops up as the course participants start to exchange notes on the course’s study.
- You can connect across disciplines and corporate/institutional walls.
- You don’t need a degree to follow the course, only the willingness to learn (at high speed).
- You add to your own personal learning environment and/or network by participating in a MOOC.
- You will improve your lifelong learning skills, for participating in a MOOC forces you to think about your own learning and knowledge absorption
It’s clear that MOOCs are gaining a lot of traction, both in higher education and in corporate training, but it’s unclear exactly what role they’ll play going forward. There are plenty of good arguments on both sides of the aisle as to MOOCs potential benefits and challenges. I, for one, believe they will have much more success in higher education than in corporate training. If I’ve learned anything during this social technology revolution it’s that companies have an extremely difficult time loosening the reins on their employees’ ability to interact, share, and learn from each other. Companies’ concerns over security, negative publicity, and lower productivity often trump the potential gains realized from greater collaboration.
What role do you think MOOCs will play in the learning community going forward?