Could MOOCs become a valuable tool in Upskilling?

Since Roman times, people considered the traditional classroom synonymous with receiving education. In the last 20 years, as the world became seduced by technology, the notion of distance learning began to take shape. From radio and television to the internet, technology developments have walked almost hand-in-hand with new learning experiences. 

It isn’t surprising that the first distance learning models began to take shape after the first Industrial Revolution because of the need of a more qualified workforce. That triggered other positive side effects. For instance, postal services became faster, cheaper and more reliable, making it possible to take correspondence courses in universities that offered distance education, such as the London School of Economics. 

Nowadays, distance learning is done almost completely over the web. The variable “location”, often a constraint, has disappeared from the equation. No matter where they are in the world, and even from home or their workplace, people can enrol in online courses quickly and learn effectively.   

Among the vast online training offer, there is a special type of course that has been around for the last decade. It’s called a Massive Open Online Course or, simply, a MOOC. While some might be thinking this notion is (already) outdated, it could be a useful means to successfully adapt to a world where technology is changing the way we work.

But let’s make something clear. A MOOC isn’t just a learning tool . It’s also a way to connect and collaborate while developing skills – digital, for instance – and engaging with the learning process. 

In this article, we take a dive into the evolution of MOOCs, their current challenges and why it could be an affordable solution to upskilling, from which businesses, especially the large ones, can profit

A brief history of MOOCs

Stephen Downes and George Siemens first used the term MOOC in 2008 to explore the interactions between a wide range of participants while using online tools. The aim was to create a learning environment richer than what traditional learning styles and tools were providing until that time.  

They tested their idea by organising a course at the University of Manitoba in Canada, where 25 students participated in person and another 2,300 participated online. They used various online tools including a blog, RSS feed, and Twitter. Simply put, it was about groups of people getting together to learn together, both in person and digitally.  

It was only in 2011 that learning tools for the masses popped up in the media. Peter Norvig, Research Director at Google and Professor Sebastien Thrun from Stanford University announced that one of their courses would be given online and for free. The first enrolment included over 160,000 students from around the world and over 20,000 successful course completions. 

Norving and Thrun took a different approach. They were less focused on student interaction and more on exploring the possibility of reaching a greater number of participants. These extended courses, based on traditional university courses, were called xMOOCs.

This milestone opened the doors to a significant development of MOOCs and online platforms like Coursera, Udacity and EdX.  

Nowadays, MOOCs are a mix of these styles. They’re not entirely connectivist, as participants can take courses on their own and not specifically in a group; and not as extended, because courses might not necessarily be connected to university courses.  

Since then, MOOCs have grown exponentially. According to Class Central’s 2018 MOOC report, the modern MOOC movement has now 101 million students and over 11.4 million courses.

What makes a MOOC a MOOC?

Anyone with Internet access can enrol in MOOCs offered on different platforms, so the number of courses people can enrol in are almost endless. A MOOC enhances participation both when creating and sharing experiences and knowledge, contributing systematically to other participants’ learning journey. 

To give you a broader view, we researched the defining characteristics of MOOCs, and selected these three:

  • Web formats rule

MOOCs rely heavily on web formats to provide course material. A large number of MOOCs are based on pre-recorded videos streamed by the trainer, creating a virtual classroom environment. The course materials are usually provided by the course instructor – or the trainer- and can be found on the course platform itself.

  • Collaboration is everything 

The use of collaborative tools help recreate a traditional classroom experience. How? By allowing participants’ input to enrich the course through forums, voting functionalities and social media groups, for instance. 

Organised live sessions give students the opportunity to meet trainers in real time and ask questions directly, bringing a human touch to these virtual exchanges. 

Some MOOCs also include in-person meetings and encounters for those participants who want to meet face-to-face with other students. That enhances teamwork and the shared learning experience. 

  • Tracking progression is key

The way a MOOC is structured and the content it provides allows for your learning to be assessed. Mini quizzes, multiple-choice exams or essays, corrected by a trainer, other peers or even automatically (likely powered by some sort of artificial intelligence), are an example of tools for better transfer and retention of knowledge.

The challenges of MOOCs 

In our digital times, could MOOCs fully replace traditional learning? Well, not quite yet, if ever. Although massive online learning has a lot of potential and has been evolving in parallel with technology, it faces a set of challenges:

  • An old-fashioned mindset

Despite the constant evolution of MOOCs’ design and structure, to some, MOOCs are synonym of extra work after a day at the office, being confined to a room with a Wifi-connected laptop, and with little to no interaction with the outside world. 

While the MOOC movement crossed the 100 million learners bar, there’s also a significant decrease in the number of new learners signing up. In 2017, 23 million new learners enrolled in at least one MOOC, only to drop to 20 million in 2018 despite the evolution of the providers’ business model and content design. While the number of MOOCs has grown considerably over the last few years, user growth hasn’t. Why are courses getting fewer users?

Let’s get more granular in our succinct but necessary analysis. Even though the popularity of MOOCs didn’t grow among students, it did among professionals.  According to this Digital Market Institute’s article, 75% of professionals prefer to learn new skills via online learning and 68% trust online learning platforms.

But there’s a catch. The key challenge for professionals is the lack of time to pursue ongoing training, which is essential to reach career goals. 

We all know that if employees’ skills development stagnate in times when technology breakthroughs don’t walk but jog or even run, business sustainability is in danger and the future of any company could crumble down. 

  • The need for certificates/diplomas

Increasingly, MOOCs are issuing certificates and/or diplomas – something businesses ask for to verify education achievements – but the validity or official recognition of them isn’t always guaranteed. Without a valid document, a student won’t be able to tangibly prove knowledge acquisition, sometimes required to perform certain activities. For instance, when a company like ours sends out proposals, teams involved need to demonstrate skills that match the requirements.

  • Time and  monitoring limits

While MOOCs have specific start and end dates, the course content is delivered in sequences, distributed throughout one or several weeks or even months. 

Without a proper follow-up after each session, there’s no guarantee that the student is actually learning. It might also be the case that one is simply jumping through the chapters to finish the course ahead of time. 

Also, as MOOCs are web-based, it isn’t easy to detect cases of plagiarism or fake attendance. 

MOOCs are a business’s business

Although some companies claim they want their people to grow, develop new skills and achieve their career goals, in practice, they’re skimpy about training, often leaving the responsibility of professional development to employees. 

This commonly translates into an “it’s up to you” approach, with people willing to acquire a new skill set and enriching their overall knowledge left on their own. Self-motivation is always welcomed, but it can quickly fade if the company’s commitment is weak, inconsistent or nonexistent. 

A feasible option that can solve some of the upskilling or retraining challenges that businesses are going through is the use of MOOCs. Flexibility, accessibility and return on investment are positive points; the lack of proper follow up or adequate certification are the other side of the coin.

Why MOOCs could become a valuable tool for Upskilling

Technology is changing the nature of work, with automation, digital platforms, and other innovations transforming how we work and affecting most industries and job functions they require. 

The gap between employees’ skills and companies’ needs is growing larger. 

Digital is like a horde, and data is likely its best weapon. It isn’t only ubiquitous, it’s also powerful for decision making, strategising and looking beyond. Every single business area has been assaulted by it, hence the need to get prepared and adapt as quickly as possible.  

No business that wants to remain can deny that digital skills, software mastery, soft skills in highly automated environments and overall business perspective understanding are urgent. 

As we explained in this blog entry, upskilling is a promising approach to make businesses more agile, resilient and people-centric. 

MOOCs might be a valuable tool to help employees evolve into the workforce of the future while helping companies keep up with the market needs. However, to successfully use MOOCs, companies will need to break away from a traditional mindset. We leave you with four suggestions. 

  • Consider a learning-at-work MOOC strategy: If an employee wants to invest in his/her career grow and therefore contribute to the company’s growth, why should he/she do so after working hours? Making online learning part of the work hours might be a solution to motivate employees to enrol in MOOCs. 
  • Organise internal meetups: Give employees the option to study alone or together at the workplace. By providing the opportunity to interact with other participants, companies can fight the isolation stigma still associated with MOOCs.
  • Design an agile, easy-to-do follow-up mechanism to assess an employee’s knowledge acquisition: MOOCs have a constraint. Because they are a self-paced type of training where evaluations are mostly personal, it isn’t easy to assess employees’ progress. A parallel mechanism combining, for instance, coaching and mentoring, can solve this limitation. 
  • Run a pilot first and test different tools. You may want to develop your own MOOCs platform or partner up with any well-established one. 
What we think
Philippe Delcambre, Data Management Senior Manager at PwC Luxembourg
Philippe Delcambre, Data Management Senior Manager at PwC Luxembourg

While the emergence of the internet in the 90s triggered a real data explosion, recent technologies have multiplied the speed of data accumulation, exponentially.  This data democratisation raises new risks in terms of information security and data integrity. Organisations, then, need to develop new skills to adopt data analytics tools, gain data handling agility and cultivate a data culture. In addition to training courses and coaching, MOOCs are useful in raising awareness, fostering the adoption of best practices and stimulating new ways to learn and share knowledge within living communities.

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