If you took a quick survey of your organization, chances are you would find several people who have taken, are taking, or are planning to take a MOOC. And of those people, a good portion of them are probably doing it to enhance their skill set and improve their career. Yes, you read that right – many people take MOOCs as courses for professional development, not because they are required to or are being paid to, but because they want to.

MOOCs are still a very new phenomenon, and although a massive amount of data is being collected, it hasn’t yet been compiled and analyzed. However, preliminary demographic data show a pretty interesting trend. According to Inside Higher Ed, reports from early MOOCs offered by Coursera and Udacity suggest that between one-half and three-quarters of the students took the courses to enhance their skills either so they would perform better in their current job or so that they could find a better job. So while universities and governments are frantically trying to figure out exactly how MOOCs will affect higher education, and in particular whether they should translate into any sort of credit, MOOC students are leading a quiet revolution of their own – they are using the free online courses to increase their job skills and earning potential.

The main question being asked these days, particularly in higher education circles, is “Will MOOCs be translated into meaningful credits?” But this is the wrong question, because we already know the answer: Yes. The American Council on Education has recommended some MOOCs for credit and is reviewing more, California is considering an initiative to allow students to receive credit for MOOCs, and many colleges and universities around the country are exploring ways to integrate MOOCs into their degree programs. So the real question is “How will MOOCs be translated into meaningful credits?”

This is a question that companies can’t ignore, as it will affect both hiring and training practices in the very near future. As Chris Farrell wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Look at any economic study on the future of the American corporation and you’ll find one clear message: Companies need educated workers. The business model of low-cost, high-quality education offered by the MOOCs could well transform corporate training and turn the idea of lifelong learning into reality. Let the revolution begin.”

So here is the situation: Your employees and colleagues are already taking MOOCs to enhance their job skills and soon the resumes that reach your HR department will feature MOOCs under the “Education” section. What does this training mean and how should it be recognized?

The first point to make is that it should be recognized. According to a recent study by the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, the #4 reason people leave their jobs is lack of recognition. Recognition doesn’t always have to come in the form of a pay raise – intangible rewards are often more meaningful – but don’t lose top talent by failing to recognize your employees’ initiatives and achievements.

The main model currently for assessing the knowledge and skills gained through MOOCs is provided by Excelsior College, a private institution that offers competency-based educational programs. They have developed tests that students can take to assess their knowledge and receive college credit, regardless of where the learning took place. Excelsior has identified several MOOCs that match their assessments so that students can take the courses and then pass the tests. This model focuses on the mastery of learning outcomes, not the method of content delivery.

How can companies follow this model in their own L&D programs? Well, the beauty of MOOCs is that they are free and available for anyone to take. So, corporate trainers can identify relevant courses offered by different MOOC providers and vet them according to the needs of their organizations. Here are some questions to ask while evaluating MOOCs from an external provider:

  • What knowledge and skills do you need your employees to acquire? What specific learning outcomes are you targeting? Like most classes, MOOCs have specific learning outcomes. Assess how well these outcomes match the needs of your organization.
  • Does the MOOC focus primarily on theory or does it incorporate real-world applications? This is an important one – many academic courses are theory-based, which may not be appropriate for your organization.
  • What kind of assessments does the MOOC use? Do the students have the opportunity to practice their skills? Some MOOCs still use primarily multiple-choice questions, but many now incorporate real-world problem-solving into their assignments and evaluations.
  • What kind of certificate or other measurement of completion does the MOOC offer? The different MOOC providers offer different types of proof of completion. For example, Coursera students can earn a regular certificate or a certificate with distinction. Coursera also has a special Signature Track program, which provides identity verification for some courses. Many MOOCs on the Canvas Network involve creating an online portfolio or digital artifact. EdX and Udacity have both partnered with third-party organizations to provide opportunities for students to take proctored exams.

As you evaluate courses, you will become more familiar with the types of courses that meet the training needs of your organization.

Of course this solution is only temporary as MOOCs are still going through their growing pains. But change is happening very quickly, and MOOC training programs are on their way to not only being accepted but becoming the norm. This process has already started – just this month, both Coursera and edX announced new initiatives to move into the realm of continuing education by offering free or low-cost teacher training programs. Individual schools and districts will be able to evaluate whether or not Coursera’s courses meet their continuing education requirements, and the edX course will be eligible for Continuing Education Units through a national education association.

As MOOCs progressively become more mainstream, more continuing education and professional development courses will be available and more companies will start to benefit from the awesome potential of this new innovation. As Chris Farrell wrote, “Let the revolution begin.”

Copyright 2013 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.