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How Organizations Can Reap the Benefits of MOOCs Faster

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

“An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning
into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

—Jack Welch

Disruption is the new normal in business. To survive, organizations must continuously adapt and learn. An organization’s ability to learn depends on its willingness, maturity, and capability to harness the latest advances in learning methods and technology. 

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer a breakthrough in technology-based learning. Although MOOCs are established as a revolution in the personal learning space, that corporate realm is not at the forefront when it comes to reaping the benefits of MOOCs.  

A September 2013 Harvard Business Publishing global survey of senior executives and talent development professionals revealed that only 27 percent of corporate learning leaders were familiar with MOOCs. However, by then, Coursera’s enrollment had surpassed 5 million users.

Another report, based on a survey conducted in the same year, showed that only 8 percent of organizations were actively using MOOCs, and predicted that the usage would increase up to 28 percent by end of 2015. 

Why are organizations not adopting the MOOC culture more aggressively? Although the answer may not be simple or straight-forward, it’s worth exploring. 

MOOCs were started by universities, not corporate organizations. MOOCs were conceptualized by top educational institutions (like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard) as an alternative to typical classroom-based courses. MOOCs came at a time when the sharp rise in the cost of education in top-level universities was becoming prohibitive for the majority of the population. A Deloitte study indicated that in United States, since 2000, “the tuition cost in colleges has increased by 72 percent, whereas earnings for people ages 25-30 have decreased by 15 percent.” 

Clearly, economics of higher education has been a primary driver for the MOOC revolution. Even now, in the leading MOOC sites like Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, courses are offered primarily by professors rather than professionals from various fields. In addition, a typical MOOC course adheres to an undergraduate-level or graduate-level course curriculum. And while there are some sites like Udemy or NovoEd, who are offering business curriculum, the contents are created by the business schools and not by organizations. 


Corporate learning programs are neither massive nor open. Although there is no strict definition of the term “massive,” the scale of participation of a typical Coursera MOOC cannot be compared with a corporate learning program’s target population. In an organization, learning programs may not be attended by 100,000+ employees. Moreover, most of the organizational learning programs cater to specific roles, teams, groups or business units.  

Completion ratio is a key factor in organizations. MOOCs are not necessarily designed to have high completions ratio. However, organizations put a lot of importance on this parameter and decide on the “coverage” based on the number of employees completing a program. 

Content is king, but context is queen. It’s not only content but context that matters most in organizational training. For example, a negotiation skills program designed for the sales team will be quite different from the same program delivered to the legal team responsible for the contract negotiations. 

It’s not easy to contextualize a MOOC, though. MOOC content typically is standardized, and all learners receive the same uniform content. 

Moving MOOCs to Organizations 

What can learning and development (L&D) do to effectively tap into this new model of social learning for organizational purposes? How can organizations learn from this delivery method to come up with new non-classroom based contents to engage large number of employees and still maintain effectiveness? 


Recently, a colleague was designing a customized communication learning program for newly promoted managers of a specific business team. Once she explained the design to the team, she was surprised to find out that the group was expecting her to create an online module and not a traditional instructor-led program. The team explicitly mentioned that they wanted it to be a MOOC offering that could be accessed by team members from any geography as they could not afford to have staff travel to a single place and participate in face-to-face training.   

To me, this incident sounded like a wake-up call for L&D professionals who can no longer think in a conventional manner—especially since people have started to expect a radical shift in the mode of training delivery. Indeed, it is ultimately the users who are going to drive the need from a push-based to a pull-based model. 

So how can organizations accelerate the adoption of MOOC approach for corporate learning and development purposes? 

Use MOOCs for basic skill building. If an organization requires foundation-level courses for skill building or compliance purposes, a good option for employees may be pursuing “certification” via a relevant off-the-shelf MOOC from a provider who can offer domain-specific contents.  For example, Coursera offers “specializations,” which are a targeted sequence of courses designed to build high-demand skills and subject matter expertise. 

Designing and contextualizing MOOCs developed in-house. Even if corporate training do not need to be massive or open, L&D teams can learn important lessons from MOOC design. Some of the important features of MOOC design include self-paced nature of learning, scalability, sophisticated peer evaluation, collaboration among learners through discussion forums, and an engaging and interesting learning experience. L&D designers can attempt to recreate these features but build shorter versions of MOOCs contextualized for target business teams. 

Use business impact as the success measure. A blog post on the Udemy site highlights that simply tracking course completion rates is a crude way of measuring learning effectiveness. As stated earlier, organizations will need to accept the fact that not everyone taking part in a MOOC will complete it. Different types of learners will gather insights from a course in different ways. Organizations will need to determine new ways to measure the impact of learning, such as observing the skill enhancement, changes in behavior and performance, and evaluation of business outcomes. 

There are not many success stories on MOOC adoption in the corporate world yet. But things are changing fast. Since we are living in an era in which there is no alternative to learning agility, organizations will expect employees to access the learning resources almost every day. This sort of expectation can never be solely achieved by classroom-based learning programs. Instead, continuous access to relevant online learning content will become a desperate necessity—including MOOCs. 

As Thomas Friedman said, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” There is little doubt that the L&D community is on the threshold of experiencing a big breakthrough in the model of corporate learning. MOOCs will likely be a part of the learning evolution.  

About the Author

Pranab Chakraborty is a senior manager in the Learning & Development (HR) team of Wipro Limited (NYSE: WIT) which is a global information technology, consulting and business process services company. As a learning and development professional, his topmost priority is to help others in developing or adapting to new skills and behaviors. He is passionate about contextualization of learning using practical experiences. In his association with the Information Technology (IT) industry for the past 24+ years, Pranab has played various roles related to client engagement, program management and delivery management functions, apart from his current involvement in the behavioral and leadership development field.

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