The Next Big Thing in Corporate Training: MOOCs

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When it comes to the American job market, truth is stranger than fiction. There are 3.9 million open jobs in the U.S., yet surveys report that many U.S. companies can’t find qualified people to fill their open roles.

Not only are there noticeable skills gaps in skilled trades, accounting and finance, engineering and IT but also in rapidly changing fields such as software development, digital marketing and geophysical exploration where skills are constantly evolving.

Training provides an obvious answer to quickly resolve the skills gap. Young graduates often don’t acquire the tactical skills they need on the job during college; employers need to step in and supply training so that these eager workers are ready to perform.

Consider a new solar panel company looking for skilled workers: What if they could train and hire displaced autoworkers in the Midwest within a few weeks?

Online training has evolved quickly over the past few years to help companies educate workers without the expense of classroom training and in ways that are more convenient for people, too.

Yet perhaps this concept hasn’t gone far or fast enough. Could companies also benefit from introducing massive open online courses, an educational platform that has been creating waves in the higher education industry for the last few years?

MOOCs are online courses aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access over the Web. They often include an on-demand delivery model and are designed for self-paced learning. These Web-based courses exist as a supplementary resource to classroom learning or as pure e-learning programs.

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 when a handful of universities in North America began to offer some version of these courses. With the growth in Web-based commerce and business processes and advances in high-speed networking, MOOCs began to take off in earnest in 2012.

The slow economy has been an additional driver behind the interest in online education, given the high cost of acquiring a traditional, on-campus degree today.

Venture-backed companies offering MOOCs include Udacity and Coursera, and a sampling of institutions such as the University of Maryland University College, UC Irvine, Georgia Tech and San Jose State University are now granting college credit for the completion of online courses.

MOOCs are still a nascent trend, yet there are intriguing implications for training.

MOOCs and Corporate America

Recently, Forbes took a look at how MOOCs could change corporate learning.

The article’s author, Jeanne Meister, discussed benefits for companies including the "flipped classroom model," which emphasizes a combination of self-paced learning and online collaboration with peers and instructors instead of in-person lectures.

There are several reasons why this model makes sense for companies today.

First, let’s talk about cost. Companies spend about $1,200 per employee on training annually, according to ASTD’s 2012 State of the Industry Report.

For a company of about 100 employees, that’s $120,000 per year–before including the opportunity cost of missed sales and production from pulling those trainees away from their work.

With online training, companies can amortize their investment in course content development across hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of training sessions.

Secondly, the method of "short burst" learning made possible through MOOCs and more broadly online training, has been shown to be more effective than sitting in a classroom for several hours.

Research from the U.S. Department of Education also points to the benefits of "blended learning," which combines online content with classroom sessions.

Companies are also changing their attitude toward training: If workers need the skills, the training division will push employees to get them.

Otherwise, HR departments are less focused on employees’ individual career development. It’s up to the employee to determine what’s available—affordable, convenient and easily accessible MOOCs are perfect here—and to chart his or her own path toward advancement.

The modern work culture, heavily influenced by younger, digitally connected workers and the bring your own device (BYOD) "movement," is a natural fit with online training.

Employees are now highly mobile, working from home, the office, a client site, the coffee shop or the kids’ sports practices; they expect access to information from whatever device they have on hand. MOOCs support that framework nicely.

Then, there’s the customer angle. Camera manufacturers or self-help book publishers can post courses on their websites, spreading their brand values while providing valuable, free content.

Finally, the primary conflict that exists in higher education related to MOOCs is nonexistent in the business world; unlike at universities, online education does not pose a threat to company revenues and branding.

In fact, perhaps the opposite is true. Online training offers employees and others accessible, affordable and targeted training, which allow companies to grow employees’ skills organically and potentially gain a competitive edge.

Companies need every tool at their disposal to grow and thrive in a cutthroat global workplace; trainers and training departments alike should pay careful attention to the evolution of online education, particularly MOOCs.

Donna Wells is CEO of Mindflash Technologies