MOOCs Are Too Uncontrollable – People Could Do Anything!

97033289_57fab34574_zThis is the fifth in a series of articles that tackle common objections to and arguments against using massive open online courses (MOOCs) for training. Read the previous article: MOOCs Aren’t Interactive, So There’s No Real Learning Taking Place.

I understand the benefits of digital learning environments, but the problem remains that MOOCs are not very well controlled. How will we know what learners are doing? They could say they are taking the course, but really just be watching YouTube. And what about our intellectual property and other proprietary information? We can’t have employees holding Twitter chats about our business.

Retaining control over employees’ training is a very real concern for many organizations. Not only is training time paid time, but training often involves the communication of sensitive business information that companies do not want publicly disseminated. In addition, many courses are mandatory and training departments are often held responsible for tying training efforts to performance metrics, so the idea that learners could engage with their courses according to their own schedule and using their own devices can be a bit scary.

I have two major responses to this objection:

  1. MOOCs used for corporate training don’t need to take place publicly.
  2. The lack of tight control found in MOOCs can actually be an advantage for organizations.

Let’s look at both of these in more detail.

Corporate training MOOCs are usually run privately.

Despite the words massive and open in the acronym, most MOOCs for corporate training are neither. They are usually run on password-protected intranets or closed learning management systems, so they are open only to approved learners and discussions take place within the system, not on public platforms. Even corporate MOOCs that incorporate social media don’t necessarily use Twitter—Yammer is a popular private social network that businesses can use to ensure the privacy of employee communications.

There are other acronyms frequently used to describe these types of courses, such as MPOC (massive private online course) and SPOC (small private online course), but they are all variants of MOOCs, so it is easiest just to include them under the MOOC umbrella. They point to remember is that a MOOC is a flexible framework that can be built upon and altered to meet the needs of any organization.

A lack of tight control can actually be beneficial.

It is true that learners in MOOCs have much more freedom than they do in instructor-led training (ILT) or traditional elearning. They can participate on their own time. They can engage with the content in different ways according to their needs. And they can interact with one another, even if they are in different departments. Even if they are on different continents!

Rather than being a disadvantage, this can lead to a much more powerful learner-centered, and user-generated, experience.

Stephen Downes, who along with George Siemans ran the very first MOOC, describes what he calls “emergent properties” of MOOCs. In exploring what it means for a MOOC to be a success, Downes wrote on his blog: “…the MOOC should exhibit network properties on a macro scale…This is to treat the MOOC as an entity which perceives, or which learns, as a whole. These things are emergent properties, for example, emergent knowledge or emergent learning. Did the MOOC as a whole produce some new insight, or recognize some new phenomena in its area of study? MOOC success, in other words, is not individual success…It is not a combination or a sum of [individual] experiences…but rather a result of how those experiences combined or meshed together.”

Here are some ways MOOCs can benefit companies as a result of emergent properties:

  • Empowering employees to take control of their own learning and professional development
  • Enabling communication and collaboration among individuals and teams that are normally siloed
  • Facilitating the development of learning organizations by demonstrating that the organization values independent learning
  • Integrating learning into everyday activities
  • Fostering innovation by encouraging employees to create knowledge resources (e.g., contribute to a wiki) and share those resources with others

These are not benefits normally associated with ILT or traditional elearning. In MOOCs, they emerge as a result of creating a learner-centered, collaborative learning space. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, I’m not suggesting MOOCs are, or should be, a free-for-all. They do have a structure, and they can be tightly controlled when it counts. For example, because they use video-based content delivery, MOOCs are excellent when consistency is essential—the core content is guaranteed to be delivered in exactly the same way every time. In addition, because of the large amount of data and analytics available, engagement and performance can be measured much more precisely than it can for ILT.

But by empowering learners and providing opportunities for them to interact with one another, MOOCs create the conditions necessary for these “macro” benefits to emerge. As Downes writes, MOOC success is not just individual success. In this case, it is also the success of the team, the department, the training program, and the organization as a whole.

It may be a challenge for firms to embrace the uncertainty that comes along with new technology-driven digital learning environments, but for those that do, the payoff will be huge.

Featured image by Faramarz Hashemi

Copyright 2015 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.

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