MOOCs: Complement to Educational Assistance or Passing Fad?

Whatever happened to learning for the sake of learning?

It's a question I have heard countless times over the course of my professional career in Higher Education. I can't count the number of conversations I have had with faculty at the colleges at which I have worked, most bemoaning the fact that people no longer seem to be interested in education for the "sake of being educated." Today, information is so easily accessible with the click of a mouse, and that ease of data transfer seems to perpetuate a culture of instant gratification. In most cases, students are no longer putting their energy into learning, but rather, are simply accessing the information they need in order to obtain the credentials they seek as quickly as possible. We can blame technology, we can blame issues in the K-12 system, or we can blame the rising cost of tuition and lack of funding.

But whatever the reason, there has been a fundamental shift in higher education. Right or wrong, the emphasis seems to be more on collecting data and speeding through coursework, rather than actually learning. Then along came MOOCs.

MOOCs and the Sake of Learning

When I first heard the term MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), I have to admit, I was pretty cynical. I looked at these offerings from colleges and universities nationwide as nothing more than a new way to garner interest and increase enrollment in their degree programs, and I was surprised that people were actually falling for it. With the decline in enrollment from traditional-aged students over the past few years, I knew that higher ed was in somewhat of a state of panic.

On the surface, it seemed like a great marketing ploy; brand name colleges and universities around the country offering free courses online to legions of students, with no fees, no credits, and no commitment. The curriculum was already developed, the technology and faculty already in place. What a great way to garner interest and create a funnel into costly degree programs; simply give away a "sample course." But as the "fad" grew, I started to take a closer look. I spent time speaking with students who were enrolled in MOOCs to see if my cynicism was warranted. I asked them why they bothered enrolling as one of 50,000+ students in an online course, where there was no connection to faculty, no credits toward a degree, and less than 10% completion rate. Their answer? "I just want to learn the subject." Wow...students learning for the sake of learning?

Obtaining Knowledge and Developing Skills

People seeking out educational opportunities with no guarantee of any outcomes other than obtaining knowledge and developing skills? My mind started racing and I immediately started to map out areas in adult learning where MOOCs could make a significant impact. Three came to mind immediately:

1. Executive Education

Employers often struggle with finding programs for their top level executives that fit the time constraints of their busy schedules. Even colleges and universities that offer executive training in cohort form are not always ideal, as the curriculum may not be beneficial for all stakeholders. MOOCs may help solve that issue. Would a CFO in the company benefit from expanding his or her business acumen horizontally instead of vertically, in areas outside their normal day to day responsibility? For example, could a finance manager with 25 years of top level finance and accounting expertise, holding both an MBA and CPA be well served by taking free courses in Global Marketing? And to do it on their schedule, without any cost?

2. Advanced Degree Preparation

My team of advisors here at EdAssist often speak with employees who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees such as MBA's, but are worried because they have not been "inside a classroom" for many years (and they are dreading taking math again!) They are fearful of investing in a high cost graduate program without knowing whether or not they can succeed. In cases like this, we often encourage them to try a MOOC, as it can help transition them back into "study mode" and provide refreshers on material they may not have seen in years.

3. Departmental Training

With employee development, succession planning, and talent management on the top of everyone's mind, Learning and Development divisions may want to consider partnering with organizations such as Coursera, edEX and others that work specifically with universities offering MOOCs. In addition to the suite of training materials that an organization may offer their workforce, why not throw free college or university courses into the mix?

MOOCs and Tuition Assistance

I'm sure there are other opportunities for organizations to utilize MOOCs as well. The challenge is just figuring out what they are. However once you do, it is important to keep in mind that the success of using MOOCs will depend greatly on how they are set up and managed internally.  Remember that colleges or universities offering these courses will be doing so on a very larger scale to thousands of students - regardless of your companies' involvement.  

That is simply the nature of the beast. But knowing that, if you can still leverage MOOCs to engage employees who would otherwise be chasing credentials and advanced degrees, and encourage learning for the sake of learning in your organization, we may truly be on the verge of an educational renaissance in corporate America. And if not? Well, I guess then that MOOCs will simply run their course and fade away, much like other passing fads.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.