What a MOOC is and What it is notMassive open online courses (MOOCs) are the education and training story of this decade (at least so far). In barely three years, they have expanded from a single course on artificial intelligence taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in the fall of 2011 to thousands of MOOCs taught by instructors from leading colleges, universities, and companies on various platforms around the world. It’s impressive.

However, while there is growing awareness of the existence of MOOCs, there persists a good deal of confusion about what they actually are and what they can do. This is unsurprising for two reasons:

  • MOOCs have changed considerably since they first came out, and they are continuing to evolve as both the pedagogies and the technologies
  • Many types of courses fall under the MOOC umbrella. Education insiders have developed an entirely new vocabulary surrounding the courses, but in popular parlance, they are all commonly referred to as MOOCs.

The goal of this article is to clear up some of the confusion by exploring what a MOOC is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t, and clarifying the roles MOOCs can play specifically within the context of corporate training.

A MOOC is a framework, not a platform.

One of the biggest sources of confusion I encounter is the idea that a MOOC is an online learning platform, a learning management system (LMS). This misconception is understandable, since the language we use often equates MOOC providers like Coursera and edX with the courses themselves, but it is a misconception nonetheless.

What Coursera and edX offer are essentially LMSs that are designed to be infinitely scalable. MOOCs are courses built using these LMSs; they are not LMSs themselves. Although MOOCs use a wide variety of technologies, they are not actually technologies at all.

What do I mean when I say that a MOOC is a framework? What this signifies is that the courses are generally constructed using a common set of building blocks, such as bite-sized learning modules, video content delivery, and online discussion forums. Within that framework, however, the options are practically unlimited (e.g., videos can be lectures or tutorials; discussions can be held privately within a virtual classroom or publicly on social media), and in theory MOOCs can be delivered on any LMS capable of handling them, or even outside of an LMS altogether.

A MOOC is flexible and adaptable, not set in stone.

One of the biggest advantages of MOOCs is their flexibility. The building blocks of the courses are short, modular learning activities, which can be swapped in and out, reused in different courses, and updated quickly to reflect changes in content or learner needs. Unlike in traditional instructor-led training (ILT), which is typically delivered only once a year or so, or traditional elearning, which depending on the format can take considerable resources to update, there is nothing about a MOOC that is set in stone. Thus, the courses can be adapted based on the needs of the organization and the learners.

A MOOC is one part of a solution, not a panacea for all of today’s training challenges.

In the early days of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun boldly claimed that in 50 years there would be only 10 universities left in the world. He stepped back from the idea that MOOCs could solve all of education’s problems after Udacity’s courses didn’t perform nearly as well as expected in a pilot program at San Jose State University. The problem was the idea that you could just turn a course into a MOOC and it would instantly be a success, an assumption that turned out to be false.

MOOCs can solve many of today’s common training problems, but only if they are developed using a solid, research-backed pedagogical approach. Putting boring training online doesn’t make it engaging; putting well-designed training online in a format that resonates with employees does.

When developing training courses and programs, learning professionals would do best to think of MOOCs as just one tool in a constantly expanding toolbox.

A MOOC is a supplement for instructor-led training, not a replacement.

There are some people who believe that MOOCs will eventually replace all forms of education, including ILT. I don’t think that’s true, but I do believe there are some courses that can be replaced by MOOCs so that trainers can focus more of their time, energy, and budget on high-value ILT areas, such as executive education. Research has also shown that students get the most out of MOOCs when the courses are used in a blended learning format. In this light, MOOCs are best seen as complementary to the training that organizations are already doing.

A MOOC is not just one thing. It can take many forms.

Finally, as I alluded to before, a MOOC is not just one thing. If you take a course on Coursera, you will get one experience; on edX, another experience; and on NovoEd (which is a collaborative online learning platform), a different experience entirely. Some MOOCs are self-paced, while others are moderated. Some use machine-graded assessments, while others use peer review. Some use a project-based model with learners working in teams, while others can be completed without any learner-learner interaction at all. Some are run on open platforms, while others are run on closed intranets. The point for trainers is that a MOOC can take whatever form necessary to meet your organization’s training needs.

I hope this post has provided some clarity on MOOCs and their role in corporate training and development efforts. Contact me to learn more about how a MOOC can complement and enhance your training programs.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. 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.

Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.