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Is a MOOC Right for Your Training Program? 3 Pros and Cons

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MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) aren’t just for college students or budding programmers anymore.

The course offerings from top MOOC providers like Udacity, Coursera, and edX have, until recently, been largely focused on the academic environment. In fact, all of the major MOOC providers have built their classes through partnerships with leading universities (including Stanford, MIT, and UPenn).

But evidence is mounting that students and academics may not be the best user base for MOOCs.

In a January 2014 article in FastCompany, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun admitted, “We don’t educate people as others wished, or I wished. We have a lousy product.”

He was referring to the incredibly poor completion and pass rates for most MOOC courses; typically fewer than 10% of students finish a course from a MOOC, and even fewer actually pass. This has led Thrun, and others, to reconsider the MOOCs’ focus on academic disciplines and instead pivot to more vocational and corporate learning.

MOOC right for your training pros and cons

So what does this mean for your company’s eLearning program? Are MOOCs about to revolutionize how you train employees? Or should you be worried that their low completion rates in the academic sector augur poorly for their effectiveness in a corporate setting?

What are the pros and cons of using a MOOC in your business?

1. Con: MOOCs don’t have a great track record in the academic sphere

In addition to the low 7% completion rates observed by Udacity, Coursera, another big MOOC provider, reports that only 30% of students who complete an assignment (usually a good predictor for student engagement) actually go on to finish the course. And data from Duke University’s first MOOC show that though 12,725 people enrolled in the course, only 313 passed and earned a certificate, an abysmal 2.5% completion rate.

BUT: That might not be the whole picture, and corporate learners are different than academic ones.

Coursera argues that the low completion rates aren’t an indictment of the MOOC model, since signing up for a MOOC is so easy that you get tons of window shoppers and people who had no real intention of taking the class in the first place. In fact, of the students who pay the nominal $39 fee for a verified certificate, completion rates approach 90%.

Additionally, many students are there simply to learn, rather than take tests or earn credentials; the equivalent of auditing a course in college. These students lower completion rates by not doing all the work and exams associated with the course, but to say they haven’t gotten educational benefit from the class would be wrong.

This doesn’t even take into account the relative success of MOOCs compared to standard courses in absolute numbers. Sure, maybe only 10% of those signed up for a MOOC pass, but that 10% is often orders of magnitude more students than even take a physical version of the course, in absolute terms.

For instance, Duke’s first MOOC, referenced above, only had a 2.5% completion rate, but that still amounted to 313 students, which is more than ten times greater than the 20-30 students who usually enroll per semester for that class on the actual campus of Duke University.

Finally, according to Bersin & Associates, corporate learners are five to ten times more likely to finish a MOOC (54% versus 5-10% for academic MOOCs). This points to a key difference between academic and corporate learners: motivation.

Where academic MOOC participants may have any number of reasons for signing up, from boredom, to curiosity, to a vague desire to learn something new or get ahead in life, business learners are more likely to be pursuing a discrete skill, or have a more concrete and short term learning objective. This makes them more self-motivated; a key component to finishing a MOOC.

2. Con: Existing MOOC providers don’t have very many corporate offerings

Visit the homepage of just about any of the big MOOC providers these days and you will see a wide variety of academic courses. From calculus, to biblical history, to English grammar and style, about everything is represented except the type of discrete skills businesses would be interested in.

It’ll be hard to train your sales team if the closest class you can find is “Introduction to Public Speaking.”

BUT: New offerings are on the way, and you can always build, or commission, your own.

Udacity is already moving in a more corporate direction, and their partnerships with AT&T, Google, and SalesForce provide courses relevant to industry needs and recognized by leading organizations. These include courses on data science, software testing, and design.

Additionally, a bevy of companies have decided to build their own. For instance, McAfee replaced their 80 hours of onsite sales training with a “flipped classroom” MOOC, and saw training costs go down, and sales figures attributable to the training rise to $500,000 a year per associate.

Other examples of companies commissioning MOOCs include 1-800-FLOWERS.com, who hired Udemy to build a MOOC for their retail florist network, and Bank of America, which partnered with Khan Academy for a MOOC aimed at teaching consumers better money management skills.

3. Pro: A MOOC can save you time and money

Bryant Nielson estimates that adopting a MOOC for training could lower your training costs by 25%. By reducing the need for staff to travel to a physical location, and for trainers to be present throughout the process (as McAfee saw) you can drastically cut both expenses and man-hours.

BUT: The upfront development costs may be too high.

If you decide to build or commission your own MOOC, beware; the cost may outweigh the benefit.

Udacity budgets $200,000 for each course it builds, and the University of Pennsylvania spent $50,000 per course to build classes for Coursera. EdX charges $250,000 to design and develop a course for its academic partners.

These initial costs may make MOOCs most valuable to large businesses and institutions already spending big bucks on conventional training programs.

So, do MOOCs make sense?

Ultimately, using a MOOC for training is going to depend largely on the type of organization you are.

At this stage, larger companies may be better suited to MOOCs simply because of the high up-front costs to designing and building one. That said, new tools aimed at the SME end of the market are coming online, like Google’s Course Builder and edX’s mooc.org platform, which seek to allow individuals and smaller organizations to create and host their own MOOCs.

Have you taken a MOOC before, either for work or education? What was your experience like, and did you finish? Add your thoughts in the comments!

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About the Author

JP Medved

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J.P. currently works as a Content Editor at Capterra, a privately held technology and online media company focused on bringing together buyers and sellers of business software. He is a graduate of Georgetown University where he founded The Georgetown Federalist. Follow him on Twitter at @rizzleJPizzle.

Comments

MOOCs can be successful only if they have good instructional strategy with the goal that learners discover it entirely engaging and complete it.

Hi Chandan,

I agree a MOOC needs to be engaging and designed around instructional best practices. I do think in a corporate setting, however, other types of pressures may motivate learners to finish a course even if it’s not the most engaging.

[…] a MOOC platform, offers a specialization in project management. Students can  pick-and-choose individual project […]

[…] Coursera, a MOOC platform, offers a specialization in project management. Students can pick-and-choose individual project management courses (like Budgeting and Scheduling Projects and Managing Project Risks and Changes) for $49 for each course, or do the entire specialization for $196. Coursera only offers a certification for those who have completed the entire program. For those interested in free coursework, they can take the first three classes without paying a dime. […]

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