Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are currently disrupting higher education and the stage is set for them to be a major force in corporate training as well. Although the mere idea of using MOOCs requires a shift in how organizations think about their training programs, much of the infrastructure already exists: more than 70% of companies have a learning management system (LMS) in place, and as of 2011 77% of corporations were already using online learning in their training programs.

Compared to higher education, where debates about online versus face-to-face content delivery are still quite heated, corporations have been early and fast adopters of elearning and technology-enabled learning tools. The gamble on elearning has largely paid off: studies have shown that elearning takes less time, costs less, and increases retention compared to instructor-led training (ILT). Elearning also has other less measurable benefits; for example, in the 2011 Towards Maturity Benchmark survey, 72% of companies reported that elearning and mobile learning helped them adapt more quickly to change.

But when it comes to MOOCs, corporate training is inexplicably lagging behind. Whereas education systems at all levels are quickly realizing the potential of MOOCs to enhance learning, corporate trainers have not yet embraced the new technology. However, MOOCs have many benefits for companies, and even some of their disadvantages in the education market are less relevant in the corporate sector.

According to Global Industry Analysts, by 2015 more than half of all training dollars will be spent on elearning. Here are several reasons some of this money should be spent on MOOCs.

Access and Scalability

MOOCs offer unprecedented access to training. Employees spread throughout an office building, a region, or even around the world can access training content whenever and wherever, via their computers or mobile devices. Instructors can curate, organize, and revise the material at any time, and trainees and instructors do not need to be in the same room, or even logged in at the same time.

MOOCs are also infinitely scalable. Organizations can provide training to any number of employees, with the only limitation being the capacity of the LMS.

Customization and Adaptive Learning

MOOCs are easily customized. Many MOOCs are built using open educational resources (OER) or a combination of OER and proprietary content. Instructors can remix, revise, reuse, and redistribute the content based on the organization’s changing needs. New research and information can be introduced into a training program and reach all learners in real-time, making the training more relevant and responsive to real-world problems and scenarios.

One major criticism of MOOCs has been that they are a one-size-fits-all solution to a many-sized problem, but this is no longer true. New technologies are available that allow MOOCs to adapt to the needs of the user. Adaptive learning technologies are currently being piloted in a Spanish language MOOC (Instreamia) and a molecular science MOOC (University of Massachusetts Boston). Companies can leverage adaptive learning in their training programs to bring all employees to the same level without some becoming completely frustrated and others totally bored.

Learning Analytics

Online learning is revolutionary in that it allows instructors to collect data about how their students learn, how long they spend on task, what areas of content are the most engaging, the most challenging, and so on. In the same vein, companies can easily collect data about their training programs and employees. The advantage of MOOCs is that they can provide massive amounts of data, which can help organizations understand how their employees learn and interact with the content so the businesses can improve their training programs. For example, the Learning Analytics Group at Stanford recently analyzed data from three computer science MOOCs and found a relationship between participation in the discussion forums and course completion. This finding suggests that MOOC designers should emphasize social interaction as a way of increasing student engagement. Learning analytics can also help companies predict employee performance and identify potential problems.


One of the big reasons professors want to teach MOOCs is to increase their visibility. According to a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 39% of professors said they taught a MOOC to increase their visibility within their discipline and 34% to increase their visibility with the media and general public. As noted by Robert Sedgewick, a Princeton professor who teaches an algorithms MOOC, “Every single faculty member has the opportunity to extend their reach by one or two or three orders of magnitude.” Companies can take a lesson from academia and use training MOOCs to increase their own visibility, both within their industry and more generally.

Of course, there are also some disadvantages to MOOCs, but these may be less relevant in corporate training than they are in education. The two most notable disadvantages of MOOCs in higher education (and the ones that get the most press) are the high drop-out rate and the difficulty of assessing learning outcomes. For corporate training, these two issues virtually disappear. First, completing the training, whether ILT, traditional elearning, or a MOOC, is part of the job – not completing a MOOC would be equivalent to not showing up for work. Second, in corporate training, learners are not assessed by their ability to take a multiple-choice quiz or write an essay. Standard training metrics, such as increased retention, increased sales, increased efficiency, and improved customer service, are independent of the training platform.

In some sense, MOOCs have all of the advantages for corporate training that they do for education, without the disadvantages. The format provides an effective, cost-efficient, highly flexible, and engaging way for organizations to provide training. The major risk is being beaten to the punch.

Copyright Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.


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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.