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Making the Most of MOOCs for Employee Development

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) first began gaining traction in 2011, with high profile educators like MIT and Harvard, as well as new entrants like Coursera and edX, entering the marketplace. These online courses, some available at no charge, could represent opportunities for employee development, but there are pros and cons, as well as best practices for their use.

Pros of Using MOOCs

The most obvious pro of incorporating MOOCs into your training and development activities is cost—most are free. And, because these open courses are offered by some of the best schools, and professors, in the country free doesn’t equal poor quality.

Another benefit is flexibility. Employees signing up for these programs generally have the ability to choose when they engage, at times most convenient and productive for them. The courses are also easily acceptable—and engaging. Many now incorporate video and some incorporate interaction to help boost engagement and positively impact learning.

Cons of Using MOOCs

There are also some downfalls associated with using MOOCs. Chief among them is the flip side of the benefit of flexibility—because the training sessions are “virtual” and generally accessible based on the schedule of the student the “no show” or noncomplete rates of these programs are high. EdSurge reports that a study by HarvardX and MITx indicated that only 5.5 percent of those who enroll in their open online courses go on to receive a certificate.

Another potential downfall is the alignment of this content with organizational needs, mission, vison, values, processes and policies. Companies don’t want employees to engage in training that undermines or contradicts their own practices, creating confusing and cognitive dissonance for students and potential headaches for management and HR staff.

Finally, the sheer volume of courses available from a growing number of providers can make the selection process feel overwhelming.

Best Practices for Incorporating MOOCs into Your Training and Development Efforts

Despite the potential downfalls of using MOOCs, the pros certainly provide a compelling reason to consider this form of training. Here are some best practices that can help minimize the cons, while maximizing positive outcomes.

  • Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. MOOCs are not appropriate for all types of training and may also fail to meet the learning needs and preferences of all employees.
  • Make it real by ensuring that both employees and managers understand how the MOOC can meet job- or company-specific objectives. Participation should not be “nice to do,” but “need to do” in order to achieve specific outcomes.
  • Engage employees in identifying appropriate sessions to meet their needs, in alignment with their jobs and the organization’s goals. MOOCs should be selected to align with employee development needs that support the overall organization’s strategic initiatives. Employees, along with their managers and HR staff, as appropriate, should work together to identify potential options.
  • Review/evaluate the offerings before pulling the switch. To ensure that course content is supportive of company policies, processes and preferences, review the course material ahead of time. This doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. It’s likely that there are certain types of training topics that may apply to multiple employees. Vetting potential programs in advance can result in a go-to list of programs for employees to choose from.
  • Hold employees accountable. Once a MOOC has been selected, hold employees accountable to completing the course. This can be done by tying participation into the performance appraisal process.
  • Remain engaged with the employee while they’re enrolled in the program. Check in to see how it’s going, what the employee is learning and how these new insights can be applied on the job.
  • After the course is complete ask the employee to provide an overview of what they learned, how it can be applied and their evaluation of the course for use by others.
  • Recognize that MOOCs should be just one of the tools in your training and development toolkit. There will still be a place for traditional, instructor-led training, as well as participation in traditional college and technical courses and offerings.

The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of MOOCs make them a potential go-to option for organizations needing to ensure that employees remain up-to-date on key issues, trends and topics that impact their ability to do their jobs most effectively. Recognizing the pros and cons, and following best practice guidelines, can help to ensure that employees—and the organization—get the most out of MOOCs.

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