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How Well Can MOOCs Train People?

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, were heralded as a breakthrough for education a decade or so ago. MOOCs such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX offer university-level courses for free. It seemed like a utopian way for students to learn: free, conveniently online, and potentially unlimited.

A Shift to Career-Related Training

Unsurprisingly, though, universities prefer their own accredited courses. There is also a great deal to be said for learning in a physical community rather than online. So MOOCs no longer seem like a wave of the future for students interested in a four-year college degree.

What they do seem like, though, is the wave of the future for corporate and career-related learning. In fact, they’re increasingly the wave of the present for these purposes.

Virtually all the major MOOC providers offer courses where people can learn job-related skills such as coding, an overview of Big Data, or corporate communications. They serve as mechanisms, then, for people seeking to update their skills and learning or to change careers, in fields as varied as technology and communications.

Not only do MOOC provide courses for upgrading skills and changing direction, but online flexibly timed courses are an ideal way for working citizens to learn and train.

Training in corporations has declined since 2001.

A Decline in Corporate-Based Training

At the same time, corporate training has declined from early twenty-first century levels. A recent Harvard Business Review on MOOCs notes that employer-sponsored training hovered at more than 20% in 2001, but had declined to 15% by 2009 — a reduction that doesn’t seem related to economic cycles, since the drop was more severe in a robust economy.

As a result, the HBR points out that many employees have gone to MOOCs to meet their own perceived training needs, both for their immediate jobs and as an investment in the future of their careers.

A Win-Win?

The article suggests, though, that encouraging employees to further their learning via MOOCs would foster a workforce whose knowledge is up to date and promote employee engagement.

How would such encouragement take place? Several ways…

The first is by providing official encouragement. As it is, many employees learn information and skills valuable to their jobs, but the existence of new information and skills may be off the radar to their employers.

Encouragement provides a positive benefit for employees, but also lets employers know the worth of what they have.

The second is giving time off and perhaps financial aid. (Although MOOCs are free, time off and supplies may not be.)

The third is by, potentially, having employees develop MOOC courses that can be accessed by other employees. Several companies, including AT&T and General Electric have already gone this route. (Others, like Microsoft and McKinsey, are MOOC course producers for the general public.)

For companies who need to train their employees, MOOCs can offer relative cost savings and minimal workflow diminishment. Employees trained onsite, for example, need to interrupt their day or even travel to remote conference locations. MOOCs can be accessed anytime and anywhere.

Although some companies may fear that fostering MOOC-based learning may be encouraging employees to gain skills and training that will lead to their leaving for other pastures, the HBR indicates that just 20% of workers currently employed and taking MOOC courses are doing so in hopes of a different job at a different employer.

All told, it looks as if encouraging employees to train with MOOC courses is a win-win for employees and organizations alike.