A little over a year ago, very few people had heard of massive open online courses, aka MOOCs. The strange acronym was recognized only in select higher education circles, where the courses were either regarded with trepidation (“What will this do to our schools?”) or with derision (“We have nothing to fear from these second-rate imposters!”). Then over a period of about six months, everything changed. Three major companies were launched, millions of people signed up for free online courses, and the New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC.” There is no longer a question of whether or not MOOCs will disrupt higher education—they already have, and they are pounding on the doors of K-12 and continuing education and corporate training as well. So, what is a MOOC? How are MOOCs affecting traditional models of education? And what does this mean for the future of corporate training?
A MOOC is a “massive open online course”: massive because the scale of the course is limited only by the capabilities of the learning management system; open because it is free and available for anyone to take; online because an Internet connection is all that is required to participate; and course because it delivers a specific unit of educational or training content. There are different types of MOOCs, but they all rely on a variety of online resources. Content delivery is usually through videos and other online media, while assessment is either objective (quizzes, exams) or subjective (blog posts, digital artifact creation, peer-reviewed essays). The term itself was first used by Dave Cormier to describe a course offered in 2008 by education and technology gurus George Siemens and Stephen Downes. This first MOOC attracted more than 2000 people, a number that was astounding at the time.
After that, MOOCs laid low for a couple of years. There were some courses offered in an open online format, but education was too focused on the broader concept of online learning to worry about these courses, whose appeal seemed limited. Then, in the fall of 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google research director Peter Norvig decided to offer their course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online and for free. More than 160,000 students signed up and over 23,000 graduated. As Thrun notes, “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.”
In February 2012 Thrun left Stanford to found Udacity, a private MOOC company. Two months later saw the launch of Coursera, the brainchild of Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Today, Coursera offers hundreds of courses in several languages from more than 60 top universities around the world. The third major player is edX, a Harvard-MIT partnership that now includes 12 elite colleges and universities. While most of Udacity’s offerings are in math and computer science, Coursera and edX are experimenting with courses across the academic spectrum.
As with any major innovation, both the hype and the criticism of MOOCs have been extreme. On the one hand, students are flocking to the courses and professors are lining up to teach them. A February 2013 survey, conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, found that of 103 professors who had taught a MOOC, a full 79% believed MOOCs were worth the hype. The professors reported that teaching a MOOC both increased their own standing in their field and improved the way they taught their traditional classes.
On the other hand, there are many questions still outstanding regarding the true value of MOOCs, many of which revolve around assessment and what completing a MOOC may (or may not) allow a student do to in the future. There is also the question of credit. As of now, there is no formal credit system, but in February 2013 the American Council on Education recommended five MOOCs for credit and the California State Senate is currently considering a bill that would allow students to receive credit for taking MOOCs. MOOCs are also making inroads in bridging the workforce skills gap. Aided by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, edX has partnered with two Boston-area community colleges to better prepare students for jobs in the digital, knowledge-based economy.
The next big area where MOOCs are poised to take off is corporate training. As Josh Bersin wrote in a November 2012 Forbes article, “At some point the enormous investment in the education industry [and MOOCs] will bleed over into the corporate market (where there is real money to be made).” In fact, corporate training is uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of MOOCs. As Chris Farrell wrote in Bloomberg Business Week, “The timing is auspicious. For one thing, companies have embraced online learning more than colleges and universities.” More than 40% of corporate training is already done online, and many of the criticisms of MOOCs are less relevant in corporate than in educational scenarios.
Some organizations are already using MOOCs for their training, like Canadian communications company TELUS. In February 2011, TELUS launched a six-week training program that used videos, webcasts, and various social media platforms to reach all 40,000 of its employees. Dan Pontefract, Head of Learning and Collaboration at TELUS, said “We’re not afraid of the MOOC; we’re demonstrating it has benefit inside the corporate ranks as it does in the academic ranks through ventures like Coursera, Udacity and edX.”
MOOCs are coming to corporate training. They are set to disrupt the old models and the disruption will be fast and furious. As we stand on this precipice, organizations and corporate trainers have a choice: they can sit in the back row and watch the show unfold, or they can embrace the new models and actively participate in determining the future of corporate training.
Copyright 2013 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.
Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management for executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.
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