Last November, MIT Technology Review defined massive open online courses (MOOCs) as “the most important education technology in 200 years,” and the nonprofit edX.org said they have the ambition to reach more than 1 billion people. During the last year, we have enrolled and participated in MOOCs and discussed them within the chief learning officer community. We believe they aren’t hype or the next fad; they are here to stay.
There are definitely areas for improvement or concern, as there are with any innovative technology. These include how to achieve a consistent and top-quality user experience, rapidly increase the number of courses, lower the dropout rates and continually enhance the course design.
Most of the discussions about MOOCs focus on the experience and potential impact on higher education, which we will not discuss here. Rather, we will talk about their impact on the 21st century workforce and corporations. It is very exciting that, according to edX, more than 50 percent of enrollments in such courses are professionals from all over the world.
Looking at market dynamics, increasing globalization, rapid advancements in technology and the continuously changing business environment, it becomes increasingly important that people up their game and continue to invest in their development to stay relevant in the workforce.
In “The Shift,” London Business School professor Lynda Gratton writes that the age of the “shallow generalist,” who knows a little about lots of different topics, is over. The future of work depends on people’s ability to build intellectual capital. That will be the foundation for value. People need to master multiple domains over the lifespan of their careers and become serial masters.
In addition to employing people with the right skills, corporations are looking more and more for specialized expertise in the so-called human cloud — the virtual, on-demand workforce. Success for a 21st century workforce is leaders’ ability to predict which competencies will be valued in the future and to accelerate mastery of those competencies.
MOOCs will provide corporations and the workforce of tomorrow with a powerful opportunity to turn education into a lifelong experience at no cost. This learning modality also will help people by refreshing their knowledge while they interact and learn from top-end faculty and develop cross-cultural perspectives and expertise from their peers.
For example, Deloitte encourages its professionals to take advantage of existing MOOC offerings and includes specific courses in its formal curricula. GE is continually looking at ways to increase reach, improve quality and optimize costs. “We are intrigued with the collaborative nature of the learning environment that a MOOC may provide. In an increasingly global workforce this can provide a unique skills-building platform,” said Peter Cavanaugh, a senior leader in learning operations at GE.
David Havis, learning and development support manager at BNY Mellon, said: “The idea of making courses from recognized experts freely available to employees with no overheads on the part of the company is very attractive.”
Despite this, there are still a number of barriers that prevent corporations from quickly adopting MOOCs. These include: How does one ensure that people get credit for course completion? Can they be customized for companies? How does one track the completion of such courses in a learning management system? How do companies deal with resistance toward using external open-source platforms?
As we have experienced with the adoption of other disruptive technologies like the Internet, smartphones and social media, it takes assessment, exploration, experience and time, but eventually most organizations will leverage new technology as long as it supports the business.
Organizations of the future are driven by connectivity, collaboration and networks. A MOOC and the way it is structured can be a perfect incubator for these aspects. It is built and designed for collaboration, using networks and connectivity to lead employees to a deeper level of knowledge and expertise.