Achieve business results from the massive online learning revolution.

To MOOC or not to MOOC—perhaps you are considering this question as you think about how to innovate learning in the new year. You're in good company because some of the most sophisticated learning organizations in the world are charting a course to leverage MOOCs to solve their most pressing business challenges. But what exactly is a MOOC? For which corporate challenges is it best suited? What are the key design and implementation considerations?

MOOC 101

MOOC is an acronym that stands for massive open online course. MOOCs originally were designed by university professors to provide free, global access to higher education courses via the Internet. The most common type within higher education is the xMOOC, which is designed to increase access to university courses taught by popular professors to tens of thousands of learners across the globe. Websites such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX serve as MOOC marketplaces to aggregate such courses.

Alternatively, the cMOOC was conceived to test the power of peer-to-peer online learning. The C stands for connectivism, a theory that argues that learning resides within social networks and, therefore, grows dynamically within a community of learners.

The power and promise of MOOCs for corporations lie in the combination of scaling expert-driven learning to global audiences with peer-to-peer learner collaboration. Of course, learning at scale and collaboration are not new concepts for corporate learning. However, integrating these components along with other "must-have" corporate MOOC design elements—such as cohorts, learner support, and practical application—is new.

MOOCs and corporate learning

During the past several months, my colleagues and I have met with dozens of business and learning leaders to understand how they are using MOOCs today, and what their plans are to use them in the future. We have found an extremely high level of interest in the unique value propositions that MOOCs offer. Four themes emerged regarding the primary business applications for corporate MOOCs.

Companies are creatively applying today's higher education MOOCs to their specific purposes. Some companies are leveraging a variety of MOOCs to provide training opportunities for their technology professionals. For example, Yahoo has partnered with Coursera to provide employees access to MOOC programs on a variety of topics such as Cryptography, Java, Machine Learning, and mobile development.

Employees who finish the programs receive a certificate of completion. That adds an employee benefit that is particularly valuable in the war for talent in Silicon Valley, and avoids unnecessary costs of creating a redundant program.

To apply concepts learned through MOOC courses back on the job, some companies are planning to design and integrate "quests" or "missions" that challenge employees to solve a practical work challenge related to the course objectives.

Companies are developing specialized MOOCs to educate customers and ecosystem partners. The MOOC learning model provides a powerful means for organizations to educate and influence global audiences about products, services, and company-specific points of view. Sponsoring organizations extend their brand reach and win trust through broad-scale customer education. For example, research by New Century Media shows that customer education can be 29 times more effective than media ads.

With this in mind, SAP recently launched a series of MOOCs, including initial offerings on topics for developers on its HANA platform, as well as mobile software development. The MOOC for HANA developers attracted 40,000 students from 158 countries, with 9,400 successfully gaining a record of achievement. SAP's completion rates are trending at five to seven times higher than the completion rates of academic MOOCs.

Companies are developing and leveraging MOOCs to identify, develop, and source scarce talent. Companies are creating or sponsoring MOOCs focused on specific high-demand skills that are difficult to find in today's labor market. Sponsoring companies provide valuable skill-development opportunities for learners, and in return they may seek to recruit top students.

For example, the staffing firm Aquent couldn't meet client needs to place HTML 5 developers. In response, it built a four-session MOOC on HTML 5 as an experiment. More than 10,000 people registered for the class. Of that number, 367 took a final exam. Aquent interviewed the best performers, and wound up placing 200 of them in jobs with its clients. Subsequently, Aquent launched "Gymnasium" to develop future learning programs to develop and source scarce talent.

Companies are building a variety of "private MOOC" learning solutions for both internal and partner audiences. Many companies struggle with the challenge of scaling expensive and inflexible instructor-led training models, yet they also want a more collaborative learning experience than is offered by traditional e-learning and virtual classroom approaches.

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For example, a rapidly growing software company that implements its products through system integrator partners is challenged to onboard and enable partners fast enough to keep up with customer demand. This company plans to augment its scheduled, instructor-led training offerings by providing a semi-synchronous, on-demand model that allows partners to join a MOOC when they wish, and complete the course at their desired pace. The learning design "flips" as students watch instructional videos and engage in self-study, and the instructor and other skilled tutors will facilitate and curate personalized learning experiences.

Recommendations

If you think a MOOC might be a good solution to your business challenge, what should you consider to get started? Based on our discussions with business and learning leaders, and our observations tracking the experience of higher education MOOCs, we've developed seven recommendations to help you successfully launch a corporate MOOC.

Clearly identify the business problem that you want to solve. Is it finding a more efficient way to reach and educate new customers? Or are you looking to quickly skill-up global employee teams on new products? Start by clearly defining your business challenge and considering if and how you can develop a MOOC value proposition that solves your challenge.

Develop a plan. An effective MOOC learning experience requires a holistic, integrated plan. A plan should include

  • a high-level learning design (for example, objectives, outline, and learning methods)
  • technology requirements
  • learner support requirements and guidelines for facilitators and tutors
  • a marketing plan
  • a business case and business model.

Don't skimp on the marketing plan—even if your MOOC is targeted to an internal audience—or you may fall into the "build it and they will come" trap.

Ensure content is relevant and modular, and create meaningful opportunities for practice and application. Select and create content that is targeted and meaningful and that can be accessed in small chunks. Videos should be short (ideally four to six minutes in length) and of decent quality—watch out for videos or articles that are too long or that lack relevance.

Use scenarios, case studies, and other application-focused learning activities to engage your audience and to build transferable skills. Challenge and enable your audience to apply their MOOC experience to solve a practical challenge in their work environment.

Award badges to recognize learner mastery. Issuing a certificate is a nice gesture, but it doesn't have much value. Digital badges are a better choice: They demonstrate the achievement of real skills, and they are verifiable and can be accumulated to recognize a series of "stackable" credentials. They also can be uploaded and shared on other sites that track skills, such as LinkedIn.

And over time, a badge helps to build an organization's brand as a leader in an area related to the skills that it badges. Simply put, a badge is persistent and visible, and offers value to both the issuer and the receiver.

Select technology that enables an integrated learning experience. Core to the value proposition of a corporate MOOC is the integration of self-paced learning with peer-to-peer collaboration. At minimum, your MOOC platform technology should be robust, scalable, and support these fundamental capabilities. Depending on your requirements, you also might wish to include some synchronous learning experiences, such as live chats or links to webinars.

Prioritize "learner success" and support services. Among higher education MOOCs, one of the biggest factors contributing to student success is robust mentoring and student support services. You will need to staff your MOOC with a team that can respond to participant questions, feed comments and questions to course technical experts, curate student forums and discussions, and provide regular, lively updates from course leaders. Curation and support services enhance student engagement and encourage participation, thereby keeping a course from turning into an asynchronous "ghost town."

Identify partners to help you get started if needed. Although it is possible to conceive, design, develop, launch, and support a MOOC on your own, consider the expertise required, as well as the costs and resources. You may find it helpful to work with firms that offer integrated MOOC learning solutions.

Although MOOCs are a new form for corporate learning, it is clear that they hold real promise. There are great opportunities ahead for bold learning leaders to innovate and create MOOC formats that fit their purposes. What problems might you solve with a MOOC?