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Making sense of MOOCs

Amid clouds of hyperbole heralding unprecedented global progress fuelled by free learning, the Massive Open Online Course was born. So how is it faring?

MOOCs first came into most people’s consciousness in 2012, dubbed the year of the MOOC by the New York Times as a number of high profile American universities started doing the unthinkable in an increasingly exclusive and expensive education market – giving the product away.

Amid clouds of hyperbole heralding unprecedented global progress fuelled by free learning, the Massive Open Online Course was born. Sceptics tempered the euphoria, pointing to low completion rates and questioning the extent to which MOOCs were extending educational opportunity (given that most of those signing up for them were already graduates). For all that, by 2015 over 500 universities had joined the party, making well over 4,000 courses available and attracting 35 million registered learners. In spite of those early nay-sayers, MOOCs are here to stay.

The clue to what makes MOOCs different from other ways of learning is in the name. They are massive, unleashing the power of learning at scale – particularly the benefits of sharing insights with thousands of other people around the world. They are open – in other words they don’t (with some exceptions) assume or require prior studies or experience for learners to benefit from them, and they are free at the point of delivery. They are online – born on the web, and increasingly studied on the move by learners using their mobile phones or tablets, squeezing study into their busy schedules. And they are courses –organised, with a beginning and an end, giving learners a sense of cohort as they work through the material together.

In a recent poll aimed at HR and Learning and Development professionals, over one in four respondents indicated that resources such as MOOCs were an established part of their repertoire (O’Sullivan and Wright, 2016). By contrast, over two thirds of respondents either needed to be convinced that MOOCs offer a credible alternative to more traditional methods, or felt they didn’t know enough about MOOCs to be able to comment. Given that business and management represents the single biggest subject category of MOOCs, this avalanche of free learning constitutes an enormous opportunity for HR practitioners.

MOOCs have long been popular with individuals as a form of demonstrating continuous professional development (CPD). The case for including them in the tools you bring to work as an HR professional gains weight from how the HR industry’s approach to CPD is changing. According to a recent podcast from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Lamb, et al., 2015) outcomes-based models of professional development continue to supplant inputs-based ones (eg ‘CPD hours’) or even outputs-based ones (eg formal qualifications). MOOC learners know exactly what they want to get out of the experience. Once they have mastered the knowledge or skill they were looking for, many see no point in finishing the rest of the course. In this case the low completion rates associated with MOOCs may be evidence of success rather than failure, as discriminating learners extract the nugget of knowledge they were after, translate it into the outcome of improved performance, and move on. This kind of individually-motivated learning, drawing flexibly from a range of resources, is highly attuned to what HR professionals are beginning to see as the key to CPD that pays dividends – tailored precisely to the needs of the person at a particular moment in their professional journey. HR’s holy grail of congruence between personal and organisational benefit becomes a lot more approachable in a world of online plenty, as learners explore and select resources which work for them within a framework of organisational expectations set by managers.

Because of their enormous reach and accessibility MOOCs are uniquely well equipped to address rapid skills development in response to industry-wide demand. Employability skills, rated as the most important factor when recruiting graduates by 81% of employers in a 2012 CBI survey, are a case in point. Another crucial focus for development is ‘the significant digital skills shortage’ identified by a House of Lords Select Committee report in 2015 as a challenge for the UK.

In making sense of the rich world of resources offered by MOOCs you can also benefit from websites such as Class-Central.com which aggregate in one place all the MOOCs coming up each month – typically between four and five hundred – conveniently classed into subject categories and with Tripadvisor-like star ratings to help you find your way around. But the best way of understanding the potential of MOOCs in your work as an HR professional is to do one yourself.

Terry O’Sullivan is MOOC programme director at the Open University Business School, which sponsors HR Most Influential

References: O’Sullivan, TJ, and Wright, J (2016) Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the workplace Webinar from The Open University and Campaign for Learning, 15 April. Available at http://view6.workcast.net/AuditoriumAuthenticator....