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MOOCs: a ghost avalanche?

 

MOOCs: a ghost avalanche?John Helmer, consultant at LINE, explores the opportunity corporates are in danger of missing and explains why MOOCs should change the way you think about your L&D budget.

The MOOC phenomenon might have begun in higher education, but it has got a lot of people in the corporate learning world very excited. And why not? The prospect of a huge hoard of highly accessible, quality online educational resources suddenly being released on to the market for free (or cheap) is a tantalizing one.

An article in Forbes recently talked about the corporate interest in MOOCs as an ‘avalanche’.

But is it a ‘ghost avalanche’? A lot of rumblings have been heard among the mountains, but so far there is not much sign of any actual snow moving. Many organisations have done nothing more than look at MOOCs and then look quickly away, put off by the practicalities and the cultural challenges.

However there are some interesting examples of adoption that indicate MOOCs are an opportunity not to be missed (not only for L&D but also for MOOCs themselves who, still looking for a business model, cannot overlook the corporate sector as a source of funding). LINE believes that judicious use of MOOCs could drastically reduce L&D spend on basic training, allowing more resources to be targeted at those ‘difficult’ training areas.

A significant barrier to widespread MOOC adoption by the corporate sector lies in the traditional model of training procurement, which tends to favour niche specialist providers (especially in face-to-face training) and bespoke development.

Organisations spend large amounts of money on basic training, year after year – and much of it is poured into ‘reinventing the wheel’ to some degree or another. One time management course is probably much like another ¬– but still retail bank ‘A’ will pay out to have a course specially developed which is only marginally different from that bought by retail bank ‘B’.

A significant barrier to widespread MOOC adoption by the corporate sector lies in the traditional model of training procurement, which tends to favour niche specialist providers (especially in face-to-face training) and bespoke development.

Organisations spend large amounts of money on basic training, year after year – and much of it is poured into ‘reinventing the wheel’ to some degree or another. One time management course is probably much like another ¬– but still retail bank ‘A’ will pay out to have a course specially developed which is only marginally different from that bought by retail bank ‘B’.

The reasons for this are not solely to do with myopia, or lack of commercial savvy. As Donald Clark points out in this interesting post for Training Zone, training is often considered a point of competitive advantage. To the extent that a particular piece of training improves efficiency, or increases the quality of output, organisations will want to keep it to themselves. In service companies especially, many aspects of employee behavior have an impact on brand; so the particular pieces of training that inculcate those behaviours can become quite jealously guarded.

However a greater degree of realism about exactly which pieces of training would allow organisations to cut their costs on basic training, since much of it is generic and has little impact on bottom line performance. Money-laundering compliance training, for instance, is surely not amenable to a great deal of variation in terms of its content.

In the less virtualized areas of the economy such as upstream energy production and manufacturing, we often see a more pragmatic, and even collaborative, attitude to basic training. Health and safety programmes in Oil and Gas, for instance, which has a globalized and highly mobile workforce, are often sponsored by industry bodies such as Opito and Step Change in Safety with the aim of spreading common safety standards across their particular industry. Jaguar Land Rover opens up its excellence in best practice manufacturing techniques to outside companies through its Lean Academy.

Why can’t similar things happen in the finance and professional services, for instance, when it comes to pieces of training that everybody has to do, and from which nobody has much to gain by keeping it to themselves? Granted these industries have a very different dynamic around compliance and the regulatory bodies in the space – but here MOOCs could surely step into the gap.

Freeing up budget for the tough stuff

It might seem strange for a company like LINE, which does a lot of bespoke learning development, to be arguing for less of it in the industry. However, our observation is that the need to procure large amounts of custom-developed basic training takes so much from client budgets that they often have nothing left over for doing the more innovative developments that would address their more difficult-to-train areas – the type of work that as an innovative company we are always itching to do!

This is where MOOCs come in; providing generic basic training to a high academic standard at a much cheaper rate, freeing up budget to focus bespoke resources on the really important stuff that really could provide breakthrough performance.

Examples of MOOC success

So where are the signs that this can actually work? Where is there evidence of actual snowfall ahead of this promised avalanche? Predictably, tech and finance are at the head of the curve in forging partnerships, as they have been with previous e-learning developments.

With the use of a MOOC-inspired ‘flipped classroom’ model internet security firm Macafee have transformed their sales training. According to Forbes, ‘sales associates now attribute an average of $500,000 per year in sales to the skills they learned through the new training model’.

Yahoo! Has partnered with Coursera to train and credential their software engineers for a fee of under $100 for each certificate.

Other companies including SAP are using MOOCs to train their customers on how to use their software, especially new products. In a similar vein, Bank of America has partnered with Khan Academy and to create a series of self-paced courses for customers on how to develop better money habits.

Meanwhile EdX is being used by the steel manufacturer Tenaris to deliver learning to 27,000 employees.

For other corporates, such as Google and AT&T, MOOCs are a sponsorship opportunity – a marketing tool.

Overcoming attitudinal barriers

Despite these positive examples, however, a lot of negative feelings about MOOCs are holding people back that go beyond traditional buying habits. MOOCs is, at root, an HE phenomenon, and many corporates hold the sector in not particularly high esteem (the word ‘academic’ is probably used most often on the corporate side of the fence as a pejorative).

A lot of basic training that UK companies do, for instance, is seen as making up for the shortcomings in state education, so the thought of going back to that same education system to supply basic training needs might seem counter-intuitive – however it can’t be denied that the rigour and depth in learning provided by elite institutions such as Harvard, MIT, etc. who have spearheaded MOOCs, cannot be matched for excellence within the world of organisational training.

It is also worth thinking about the plight of mid-range universities, who are facing a double whammy – with MOOCs, and changes in the way research is funded that favour Russell Group members over this squeezed middle of institutions. This group has a strong driver that will make it highly amenable to supplying the specific knowledge needs of corporates as a way of supplementing and replacing lost income.

Role of MOOCs in training transformation

A transformed learning landscape in corporates also plays to the strengths of MOOCs. With blended learning and multi-device access driving the ‘death of the course’ and more architectural models of programme design, it is far easier to look at what MOOCs can supply as just one among many components in a learner journey, and not look to any one MOOC to supply the whole of the learner journey.

And if this seems to throw too heavy a burden on the already over-burdened head of learning, in sourcing and assessing these new educational resources – sorting through what is available from MOOCs and integrating it into a blend to form a learner journey – well you can always call on a company like LINE to help!

To sum up, MOOCs provide a real opportunity for corporates to cut the cost of their basic training and free up budget for more adventurous stuff. In that they could be a real game-changer. Don’t let the superficial appearance of difficulty hold you back from investigating this opportunity in more detail: it’s a journey we’d love to help you along with.