Les MOOC“MOOCs will destroy education!”
“MOOCs are wonderful / terrible / game changing innovations / over-hyped gimmicks!”
“MOOCs are the future!”
“MOOCs are dead!”

If you’ve been paying attention to the MOOC news over the past year or so, you’ve undoubtedly heard at least one (and probably all) of these proclamations. But even as experts continue to debate the place of MOOCs in our educational systems, there is one fact that is impossible to overlook: MOOCs are very, very popular. In October, Coursera reached “the triple milestone”: the platform how hosts more than 100 institutions offering more than 500 courses to more than 5 million students.

Why are these courses, which generally do not confer any official credit, so popular? And how should organizations view this trend?

I have written extensively about the various advantages of MOOCs and what benefits they have for learners and organizations. All of these reasons can fit under three major umbrellas:

  • Novelty. MOOCs are completely different from any model of education we have ever experienced before and they utilize many of today’s top consumer technologies. From the learners’ point of view, the idea of being able to access hundreds of courses from top universities on a cell phone is pretty amazing. From the instructors’ point of view, the ability to reach more students in one semester than is normally possible in an entire career is almost mind-boggling.
  • Necessity. There is no question that our education systems are in bad shape, and that goes for training and professional development as well. Institutions and organizations are spending a lot of money on education, but in terms of job skills, they are seeing very little ROI. MOOCs offer a way to decrease costs and (when done well) also improve learning. On the other side of the coin, many workers see MOOCs as a free and flexible way to stay up-to-date in their fields and enhance their skills. The results of several surveys have revealed that about half of the people who enroll in MOOCs do so for work-related reasons, even though their efforts will not be formally recognized.
  • Possibility. Many people see MOOCs as a harbinger of changes to come. MOOCs themselves may not replace traditional models of education, but they are certainly expanding our ideas about what is possible. It is probably no coincidence that the exponential gains in the popularity of MOOCs have coincided with increased interest in competency-based education, alternative credentials, and other non-traditional models of learning.

In sum, MOOCs are popular because they are big and new, because both organizations and learners need better solutions, and because they signal larger changes in how we view education and training in general.

Here are three reasons organizations can’t afford to just sit back and see what happens—they need to get in the game:

  • The potential marketplace is huge. Josh Bersin wrote in a recent article on Forbes that “there are more than 2 billion potential learners around the world today, and more than 70 percent of these are unable to afford a college degree.” With McKinsey expecting that by 2020 a college education will confer a 300 percent salary advantage, this means a lot of people will be looking for low-cost options for education. Bersin also noted that in addition to college students the potential MOOC audience includes “hundreds of millions of post-secondary students and professionals,” who “as the MOOC certification market matures…will find online education more and more valuable every quarter.”
  • The biggest skills gap is yet to come. Companies in nearly all industries are currently having difficulty finding qualified workers for many positions, and this trend is expected to continue. A recent Accenture study found that nearly half of the businesses surveyed anticipate an even greater skills gap in the next one or two years, which will directly impact business performance. Organizations need to find efficient and cost-effective answers to this problem now, rather than waiting for the situation to get worse.
  • Younger workers will expect it. According to the “Accenture 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey,” more than three-quarters of students who graduated from college this year expected the employer to provide formal training, and many of them will expect that training to be online. A recent study found that Millennial students think that more learning will become virtual and take advantage of social media. An organization that does not offer cutting-edge training programs may have difficulty attracting the next generations of workers.
  • MOOCs will influence future models of learning. I suggested above that MOOCs are harbingers of things to come. The education landscape is changing as quickly, and the models of instruction that are popular in ten years might not even be on the radar today. But MOOCs, the philosophies that guide them, and the tools that support them will inform future models of both in-person and online education and training. Getting involved now is the best way organizations can become part of the conversation.

So, let’s return to the opening questions. Why MOOCs? Because they provide a promising novel solution (or at least a starting point) for some of the biggest problems facing our educational and training systems today. Why now? Because, for many organizations, “later” may very well be too late.

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.

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.