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MOOCs Add a New Dimension to Employee Development

MOOCs Add a New Dimension to Employee Development

By: John Rossheim

Pop quiz: What instructional innovation has the potential to supercharge your company’s employee engagement and skills development?

The answer: MOOCs.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are offered by major universities -- often for free or cheap -- on topics ranging from Ruby on Rails to the Affordable Care Act. MOOCs and their kin promise to shake up the way workers step up the skills ladder.

What exactly is a MOOC? MOOCs are massive, open and online. Anyone in the world with a computer and Internet connection can take them, usually without charge. Many are offered by leading scholars and scientists, and typically augment their video lectures with interactive features such as discussion groups and homework that is graded either automatically or by fellow students.

MOOCs are more high-brow than YouTube. A MOOC differs from many online business videos that aim to instruct, which are often poorly-produced. "The video and audio production are awful," says entrepreneur Stephen Shooster, who owns Global Response, a Margate, Fla., call center outsourcer. "They're so boring."

Shooster is, however, a satisfied subscriber of instructional provider Lynda.com. Note: the production values of MOOCs vary widely, but nearly all incorporate interactivity.

Why should your business care about MOOCs?  Open online courses offer employers a rich opportunity to upgrade employee development, simply by making workers aware of upcoming offerings that are relevant to your business.

Especially in technical fields like software development, some MOOCs are free -- an educational opportunity that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars as a traditional certification course.

How MOOCs can target employee development goals. MOOCs will be most useful if companies embed them in their career-pathing programs. “Employers need to invest time one-on-one with employees to review their performance and development requirements and then identify the specific MOOCs for employees to participate in,” says Ryan Lindsay, director of consulting firm Corporate Education Advisors in Adelaide, Australia.

How to support MOOC student-employees. “MOOC classes are designed to be the equivalent of college courses,” says Jonathan Haber, an education consultant and blogger for Degree of Freedom. “So employees who go through the experience of taking one should be encouraged and rewarded using the same mechanisms used to support options such as taking night courses,” he adds.

Employers can recognize the value of their workers’ MOOC studies in multiple ways: by organizing brown-bag lunches for workers taking a particular course and/or acknowledging completion of courses in employee performance reviews.

What kind of credit is appropriate? MOOCs generally are not offered for academic credit. So how can you know if an employee has successfully completed a course on his own? One school of thought: “There's an understanding that an employee who’s willing to sacrifice personal time to learn something work-related is going to be putting their best effort into a class,” says Haber.

An alternative is to take advantage of emerging methods of authenticating the work of online students, such as Coursera’s Verified Certificates program with Signature Track, which uses biometrics and web cams to confirm identity.

“Yahoo has said any employee that takes a Signature Track course will be reimbursed” for Coursera’s relatively modest fee, says Julia Stiglitz, director of strategic partnerships at the Mountain View, Calif., MOOC platform provider.

Making existing corporate training systems more MOOC-like. Large enterprises with their own substantial learning systems can augment their efforts with MOOC functionality to boost engagement.

“I’m beginning to see big companies with forward-looking HR that are saying, ‘We could use MOOC principles to revolutionize our training,’ ” says Jeanne Meister, a partner at consulting firm Future Workplace in New York City.

“Corporations will ask, 'How do we integrate free MOOCs into our existing employee training systems?’” says Meister. Two of many possibilities: integration of training systems with Meetup.com for its networking and community features, and the incorporation of peer-grading systems.

A MOOC-lite solution for business. Udemy, which specializes in instructional videos, offers many business courses at modest prices. “Udemy For Organizations takes our instructional technology and lets companies create a branded private learning hub, say for onboarding, to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” says Shannon Hughes, a spokesperson for the San Francisco firm. 

“You can create a course for your team that enables people to ask questions and have interactions,” she adds. Udemy For Organizations’ tools enable managers to assign courses to particular employees, among other administrative tasks.