To MOOC, or not to MOOC

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Written by Bert De Coutere on 1 January 2014 in Features

Bert De Coutere asks whether MOOCs have a place in corporate training

Massive online open courses, or MOOCs, are without any doubt the learning technology with the fastest adoption rate I've witnessed in the 15 years I count myself part of the online learning profession.

Over the years, our industry has seen learning management systems, the SCORM standard, serious games, mobile learning, 3D worlds and many more technologies passing; some became part of corporate training's way of working, others dissolved after their hype phase. Do MOOCs deserve a place in the L&D offering to our employees?

While 2012 has been the year of the MOOC, 2013 turned into the year of the anti-MOOC and the debate is still ongoing. In fact, MOOCs have dominated the conversations on learning technology, at least in the academic world. Corporations only recently started to wonder what all the fuss was about and if MOOCs were worth exploring.

In this article, I'll outline my view on MOOCs within the context of corporate training, and illustrate it with the experiences taken from the LeaderMOOC pilot by the Center for Creative Leadership.

The state of the MOOC

Love 'em or hate 'em, MOOCs are a phenomenon. More than 10m people have taken a MOOC, the major MOOC platforms have attracted tens of millions of pounds in venture capital investments and, as more and more experimentation and research goes on, more is known about the value of MOOCs and their yet-to-be-solved challenges. But if you look at the current MOOC organisers, they are mostly higher education institutions.

Ever since I joined the corporate L&D field, I've been amazed at how there seem to be two parallel universes, with higher education on one side and corporate training on the other. The two have more in common than they care to admit, and a case in point of this is the phenomenon of MOOCs. In academic circles, MOOCs have been dominating the innovation conversation for close to two years now. But in a recent poll among participants in a Training magazine webinar, only 25 per cent had experienced a MOOC1, indicating that cautious interest is only starting now in the business education arena.

While both worlds have different agendas and challenges, there is a major overlap where MOOCs are concerned. I'm talking here about the learners. Studies have shown that most MOOC participants do not belong to the typical student audience of higher education. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that a vast majority of students enrolled in MOOCs already hold college degrees and are taking the courses primarily to advance in their jobs2. More than 80 per cent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 per cent had some graduate education. These numbers were confirmed by our LeaderMOOC pilot: 92 per cent are over 25 years old and 45 per cent state "I'm working and ready for the next step in my career".

In short: MOOCs are at present mostly offered by prestigious higher education institutions to an audience that was traditionally served by corporate training. That might be a signal that organisations fail to nourish their employees' hunger for learning.

Do MOOCs meet learning and quality objectives?

The big question of course is: do MOOCs work? Can they reach our corporate learning objectives, offer a high-quality experience and contribute to business as well as the current formats do?

Here are the key questions, and the questions we were seeking answers for with the LeaderMOOC pilot:

  • does the MOOC format work? (In our case: does it work for leadership development, which is largely about behaviour change and not limited to knowledge transfer?)
  • if so, for whom does it work? (What do they achieve? Why does it work?)
  • for whom does it not work? (Who are they and why did it not work?)
  • how can we improve MOOCs and make them work for more people?

In short, here is what we found out:

  • the MOOC works as well as an equivalent classroom-based offering does, which means gaining insights, making concrete action plans for improvement and getting feedback on them, and leaving the course on a high note
  • …but only for a subset of enrolled people MOOCs attract massive numbers of learners but they also have massive drop-outs - the format simply is not suitable for everyone. People who can immediately benefit from the course, who can make the time and are capable of directing their own learning process, will thrive
  • the higher the bar, the more people will drop out Reasons it doesn't work include lack of time, a low, or only partial, need for the course topic, technical hurdles and frustrations at not meeting expectations. If the course requires deep introspection, peer reviews and other 'high-threshold' activities, the participation will be lower
  • we can work on the technical barriers and setting the expectations from the start However, MOOCs will not, and need not, be the sole learning answer for everyone.

MOOCs don't work for everyone

There is enough research on MOOCs now to have a baseline on various levels of engagement and interaction. Here is what to expect: typically half of the enrolled people never show up; levels of participation vary; a more or less stable community forms after two weeks, and 5 to 10 per cent of people will follow the whole MOOC until the end date3.

In LeaderMOOC, we saw this baseline materialise and had even less people going all the way to the end because of the demanding nature of the course. It is easy to be blinded by completion rates, and this is especially a topic of debate in the academic world driven by its mission to democratise education and reach all.

Corporate education doesn't share this mission and is by nature more selective, but 10 per cent isn't a convincing number. Or is it? MOOC completion rates tell as much about the impact of a course as class attendance numbers do: about nothing. Judging by the quality of assignments, personal reflection, peer review and actions of those who 'survived' LeaderMOOC, we cannot but conclude the value of the course was immense - if only for a small fraction of participants:

  • 46 per cent of people actually show up at the start of the MOOC
  • after 2 weeks it stabilises to around 11 per cent
  • gradually that goes down to 2.9 per cent after eight weeks
  • around 30 per cent hand in their assignment in the first week
  • that grows to 74 per cent of active students in the last week
  • 58 per cent of those who handed in the last assignment earned the badge for the course (or 1.6 per cent of all enrolled people).

One lesson to take away from this for corporate training: MOOCs would not be the ideal format for compliance training, or any form of mandatory training for that matter. Those types of training interventions need 100 per cent 'ticking the box' participation. MOOCs would, however, be an ideal format for opening up training that is potentially beneficial for a large population of employees but is at present not as widely offered as we would like because of cost reasons.

So only a small percentage of people reach all learning goals (at least the ones we decided on) and that doesn't come across very well. But I like to offer a flipped view: instead of us hand-picking those who are worthy of training, MOOCs offer a self-selection process that delivers similar results. Normally in corporate training, we hand-pick the people who are allowed to benefit from our courses and there is a rigorous process in place to determine who is in need and worthy of our training spend. From that point of view, we want our investment to yield for about everyone who gets in.

In a MOOC, people self-register based on interest. Through a process of self-selection, a community of learners who have reached the learning goals at least as well as they would have done in a classroom programme emerge, but on top have shown their dedication for the topic.

Suppose you would spend the same amount of money organising classes or organising a MOOC. In the first case, you get a cohort of around 20 people who graduate. In the second, you may also end up with 'only' 20 highly dedicated MOOC participants who go all the way through, but you started with hundreds more who also benefited partially from your offering (to get only out of it what they needed, or to taste the topic) and you didn't have to exclude anyone.

There are roadblocks MOOC participants need to overcome:

  • if the student is ready, the MOOC will appear First of all, is there an actual need? We found that people 'whose time had come' to study this topic were more motivated and spend more time on it
  • time is not something you have, it is something you make In our pilot, we overwhelmed people. In a professional context, people have only two to three hours a week to spend on a MOOC but people who spend more time reported greater gains from the course. Lack of time is one of the most cited reasons for drop-out by participants
  • the technology-HAVES and technology-CANS Learning technology might have come a long way but it is still not seamless. This is a factor not to be underestimated and it takes more work to avoid people leaving MOOCs out of technical frustration
  • "the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn" (Alvin Toffler) This is my all-time favourite quote on learning and it does point to a form of 'educational Darwinism' found in MOOCs: it takes a high degree of discipline and self-directed learning to succeed. The good news is that learning to learn is a skill as any other, and learning to learn in a 'messy' MOOC environment, seeking meaning with hundreds of people, is also something we can get better at.

Ignore, promote or make

There are a few approaches corporate training can take towards the MOOC hype: ignore it altogether until others have figured it out; take a more proactive stand and select a few of the publicly and freely available MOOCs to promote among your employees, or test the waters and design and deliver a MOOC pilot.

There are excellent MOOCs out there, and they are mostly free. All it takes to include them in your L&D offering is to select the ones that meet your audience's needs, their learning objectives and quality standards, and promote those as part of your catalogue, just like you would with any other external vendor. You'll need to figure out if and how to include the MOOC activity in your learning system's records.

Or you can pilot a MOOC. What does it take to offer a good MOOC? Well, let's just say the M for massive is not only applicable to the number of learners, it is also an indication of how much work it will take. One of the golden tips we got from our MOOC hosting platform at was "if you ignore your course, so will your users".

Two tips if you are pursuing this path:

  • first of all, avoid the temptation to repurpose existing materials and quickly convert them into MOOC readings. It didn't work for converting classroom slides to e-learning page-turners, and it won't work well for MOOCs either. Making short videos, devising insightful discussion questions to kick-start reflection, curating the best few links for deeper diving etc will all take time and money
  • secondly, don't make the e-learning 1.0 mistake of investing heavily in creating material and then throwing it over the fence. MOOCs are alive and need continuous adaptation. We went into the discussion forums every day to interact with our LeaderMOOC participants. Especially in the beginning weeks it is essential to start building the community. After a few weeks you'll see people emerging who take over some of your facilitation role.

The driver's seat

For years now we have been talking about putting the learner in the driver's seat of his own learning process. A MOOC is probably the formal learning format that gets closest to achieving that, as learners have to take control and direct their own learning experience to survive in its environment. The flip side of putting the learner in charge is to let go of control - and some of the accountability - on the part of the provider.

What we see happening when we really mean that we want to put the learner in the driver's seat is people going in and out of courses and taking what they need, large drop-outs, people suddenly forming communities around topics of their own interest and 'drifting away' from what you had designed and created. Those are actually good things. They do require a different mind-set: it's about the learner, not about us as an L&D department. Are we ready for that?

Redefining MOOC for corporate L&D

Reading the vast literature on MOOCs of the past year, it is easy to forget that the current dominant model is already a permutation of the original format that preceded it by a couple of years. To distinguish between the original format rooted in connectivism theory and the current one delivered by Ivy League universities, we call them cMOOC and xMOOC respectively.

But the truth of the matter is that the MOOC is a very blurry concept. Already there is an alphabet soup of acronyms: mini-MOOC, DOCC (distributed open collaborative course), BOOC (big open online course), MOOD (massive open online discussion), SMOC (synchronous massive online course), SPOC (small private online courses), ROOC (regional open online course) etc.

I'm sure that, as corporate training starts to investigate MOOCs, it will come up with its own adaptation and give birth to a third family of MOOCs. The piece that companies will struggle most with is definition of 'open'.

In the long run, those names and the acronyms we use for them might not even matter. It is likely that what we describe now as the blurry concept of MOOC just becomes the 'new normal' for online learning or (are we still using that term?) e-learning. Just like we now associate the term 'e-learning' with page-turners, in five years' time it might mean what we now call a MOOC. That gives us all the more reason to not ignore this trend and seriously start investigating its place in corporate training.




3 Figure taken from Phil Hill, based on free MOOCs

About the author

Bert De Coutere is solutions architect at the Center for Creative Leadership EMEA. He can be contacted via


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