Lifelong LearningWhen Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Coursera’s Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, and other education innovators decided to start putting courses from top universities online, for free, their idea was to make education accessible to everyone who wanted it, regardless of socioeconomic status, country, and other barriers to getting a traditional college education. What they may not have anticipated was that MOOCs would be such a huge hit with people who already had that traditional education—those already in the workforce who had gotten their degrees five, ten, or even twenty or more years earlier.

But that’s exactly what has happened. MOOCs have spurred a major trend toward lifelong learning. Companies are now experimenting with ways to harness their employees’ desire to learn to help their organizations succeed.

The lifelong learning trend

There have been several studies of who takes MOOCs, mostly based on student surveys. The biggest one to date has been a University of Pennsylvania study released last fall that analyzed the demographics of MOOC students from 32 of the institution’s courses available on Coursera. What they found, which echoes other reports of this type, is that a typical MOOC student is older than traditional college age, already has at least a bachelor’s degree, and is already employed. Two of the most common reasons students give for taking MOOCs is to advance in their current career and to prepare to make a career change. In other words, people who already have a degree and are already in the workforce are taking charge of their own professional development and participating in courses on their own time and outside of their company’s training programs.

This is a pretty major finding. Corporate training and development programs don’t usually inspire very much excitement, and these same people are probably daydreaming through their formal training and then forgetting everything immediately afterward. The MOOC data suggest that employees want to learn, not just to sleep through training seminars. They want to get better at their jobs and train for new ones—but traditional training and education programs just aren’t doing the trick.

This trend toward lifelong learning is being driven on the student side by the same force behind the current push toward more training on the employer side: the skills gap. Both recent graduates and seasoned employees are realizing that in this time of incredibly fast change on nearly every front, the skills they learned even just a few years ago are now obsolete. In order to succeed in their current jobs, as well as be competitive in the future, learners are using MOOCs to update and enhance their professional skills.

How companies can capitalize on this trend

Companies can take advantage of the lifelong learning trend mainly by supporting and recognizing their employees’ learning initiatives. In a recent article for Entrepreneur, Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard identified several tactics businesses can use to create a culture of learning. Here is how these tactics can be used to support employee learning in MOOCs:

  1. Weekly lunch and learns. Once a week, buy lunch and have an employee present what he or she is learning in a MOOC. This can help spread knowledge and also create an environment where learning is seen as a priority.
  2. Training budgets and tuition reimbursement and recognition programs. MOOCs are free to take, but verified certificates cost anywhere between about $40 and $100. Reimburse your employees for these expenses—this practice will both encourage employees to take courses and demonstrate that you support their professional development. Plus, it is a lot cheaper than developing and running an in-house course!
  3. Set specific learning goals. Encourage employees to set learning goals every quarter and then check in with them on how they are doing. For example, managers can monitor their employees’ progress through MOOCs and provide support when necessary. Training departments can track learning efforts to identify and support organization-wide learning efforts.
  4. Distribute books to read. For MOOCs, this tactic can be changed to “vet and recommend courses.” There are hundreds of MOOCs available—training departments can support employee learning efforts by vetting courses and making specific recommendations.
  5. Acknowledge the results. This is the big one—don’t let your employees’ training efforts go unnoticed. Treat MOOC accomplishments the way you would any other training program.

Here’s another tactic Skonnard didn’t address: provide onsite support for MOOC students. If you recommend a course to your employees, organize group meeting, either in-person or online, where those who choose to take the course can connect.

Companies can also benefit from the lifelong learning trend by offering their own MOOCs as ways to both identify potential future employees as well as build relationships with partners and customers.

Challenges for MOOCs and lifelong learning in training environments

The biggest challenge for organizations in incorporating MOOCs and the recognition of lifelong learning into their training as described in this article is the “not invented here” syndrome. Many companies (and many T&D departments) have a hard time accepting courses and materials developed by third parties; they want to retain strict control over employee development. But with how rapidly knowledge and technology are changing, and the huge increase in skills necessary for businesses just to keep up, this attitude is a dangerous one and will result in your company falling behind. You can always supplement MOOCs with your own in-house training and materials, but for many standard courses, it probably isn’t necessary. Work with your employees and provide the support they need to manage their own career development—the results you see will likely be better than any you could have predicted.

MOOCs are challenging organizations to thinking about training differently. Realize that your employees are probably already taking them (or engaging in other self-directed professional development) and find ways to support those personal lifelong learning initiatives. Otherwise, you might find your employees taking their new knowledge and skills to a company that does provide such support and recognition.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. 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.

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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.

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