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The Promise of MOOCs: Key Findings from New ATD Research

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The ATD Research team is excited to share some of the highlights from ATD and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp)’s new work focusing on massive online open courses (MOOCs) in learning and development (L&D).

MOOCs, which are collaborative online courses open to anyone wishing to participate at no cost (although a fee may be required to obtain credit), have gained popularity and recognition in higher education. Among the benefits MOOCs offer students are the ability to access materials at any time and from any location, and the opportunity to collaborate with other learners. The value of MOOCs has been a topic of debate, however, especially in light of dismal completion rates.

With the amount of attention directed at MOOCs in academia, we were not surprised that many talent development professionals were seeking answers to questions:

  • Are organizations using MOOCs in L&D and are they using them effectively?
  • What benefits can organizations realize from using MOOCs? 
  • Do poor completion rates also plague MOOCs in L&D? 

To investigate these questions, ATD and i4cp surveyed 525 learning and business professionals in summer 2014. Our findings were published in our research report, MOOCs: Expanding the Scope of Organizational Learning.

MOOCs aren’t widely used in learning but they hold promise

Our research discovered that MOOC use is still low in talent development, with only 22 percent of surveyed professionals reporting that their organization currently uses MOOCs in L&D. Not surprising, most MOOC activity in L&D has been recent. More than three-quarters of organizations leveraging MOOCs only started doing so in the last three years.   


The ranks of organizations that are new MOOC users are also expected to grow, however. Of organizations that currently do not use MOOCs, 36 percent are planning on leveraging MOOCs in the future. But these new users may not realize all the possible advantages of MOOCs right away. Our research found that the longer MOOCs were used in L&D programs, the more likely organizations were to report that MOOCs were effective.

We polled participants on what they felt were the greatest potential benefits of MOOCs, and they cited broadening the scope of learning opportunities as the single greatest advantage. Other top benefits were providing access to e-learning and expanding the leadership development curriculum. 

Addressing the problem of poor completion rates 

Although MOOCs appear very promising, our findings suggest that users of MOOCs in L&D settings, like academic MOOC participants, very frequently become disengaged and drop out. We asked survey respondents about their personal experiences with MOOCs, and it was clear that the majority of MOOC starters never finish. 

To keep learners engaged and effectively deliver content, Amy Rouse, a director at AT&T’s corporate university, which uses MOOCs, suggested that learning professionals should consider using MOOCs in combination with other delivery methods. 


“There are limits to what we can do now with technology to connect people who may not be physically located together. So we’re exploring very creative approaches to blended learning, such as how we can combine MOOC content with hands-on labs or self-paced pre-requisite content, and maybe follow up with a social learning collaborative community where employee learners can support each other when they’re back on the job. It may not be all MOOC, all web-based, or all instructor-led training. But we’re excited to see how we can combine these alternatives to create the most effective learning experiences to help employees succeed,” said Rouse. 

Want to learn more? 

I encourage everyone to join us for a free   webcast  hosted by ATD Research and i4cp on February 2, 2014, at noon. We will discuss the report’s findings. 

The full research report, MOOCs: Expanding the Scope of Organizational Learning, is available for purchase online. Members have complimentary access to the whitepaper version of the report. 



About the Author

Maria Ho is the manager of ATD research services. She serves as ATD's senior research program strategist and designer and provides oversight and direction for all of ATD's internal and external, industry specific, and market research services. Prior to joining ATD, Maria was a public policy researcher, data analyst, and writer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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