Opening up to MOOCs: opportunities for L&D


Learning and development (L&D) is awash with acronyms and now there’s a new one on the block, the MOOC – or massive open online courses. Martin Couzins looks at how employers can use these platforms to offer low-cost and interactive learning routes for staff.

MOOCs are online courses that are accessed from the web and allow for unlimited participation. There are different varieties of MOOCs, but the technology that underpins them is similar in that it enables participants to consume and comment on content and for participants to talk to each other.

MOOCs have only become popular in higher education in the last two years with the emergence of providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, but are now beginning to gather strong interest among employers. And in June, Google will launch, which will provide organisations with a free platform to access MOOCs and develop their own.

Commercial appeal

There are two factors that make MOOCs particularly appealing for businesses. First, there are many free high-quality courses onto which employees can enrol. Second, the technology is cheap and easy to use both for course designers and participants, making it a cost-effective way of developing courses.

Ben Betts, CEO of MOOC platform Curatr, says that there are plenty of MOOCs focusing on business skills and that L&D teams should be looking to promote them as a part of personal development plans. They will also save the organisation time and money as it will not have to develop new courses whenever a new training need arises.

“Put MOOCs on personal development plans and give people the time to do them. You might need to audit those courses to understand the sort of benefits that are possible, but there’s no need to go and create a course every time you think there’s a training need within your organisation,” he says.

Appetite for learning

Research from analysts Bersin by Deloitte suggests that there is a huge appetite for MOOCs among adult learners. More than 10 million people have enrolled in MOOCs to date and the majority (50-70%) of those are working adults, rather than students.

More than 10% of executives have taken part in executive education delivered through MOOCs and 54% have finished them. That compares with between 5% and 10% completion rates by students on academic MOOCs.

The good news from a budget perspective is that these courses are free to take. This means that high-quality content is easier to access than ever before, according to Mark Lester, global head of education partnerships at FutureLearn, the Open University’s MOOC platform.

“In MOOCs, businesses have the ability to send employees onto quality-assured programmes from top research institutions who are experts in their field to get relevant learning at a tremendously low cost,” he says.

The benefits do not stop there. Betts says he sees organisations using MOOCs in a range of innovative ways: “I’ve seen good examples of teams enrolling on a MOOC together as a form of idea generation or innovation – using the MOOC to develop thinking and generate ideas. MOOCs can be good as a team builder as well as an idea generation tool. You can use them as a part of your R&D [research and development] strategy within teams too.”

Bersin by Deloitte says employers are also using MOOCs for:

    • building talent pipelines;
    • onboarding new employees;
    • self-directed development;
    • workforce training;
    • educating partners and customers;
    • brand marketing; and
    • collaboration and innovation.

Deloitte is one of a number of employers currently looking at developing its own courses through MOOC platforms.

Chrissie Gale, global e-content leader at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, argues that MOOC platforms offer a much better user experience than learning management systems (LMS).

“We do have an LMS which we use as our system of record for our learning activities. However, what we’re finding is that it is not necessarily great in terms of user experience,” she says. “What we’re looking to do is create or find a platform that will really engage the user and help us deliver complex programmes with a simple user experience. [We’re looking for] peer-to-peer collaboration that will support multiple learning modalities.”

New approach

Deloitte is in the early phases of researching which MOOC platform to use, but Gale recognises that designing a MOOC will require a different set of skills for the L&D team.

“We do see that there’s going to be change management effort for our L&D team. We have very talented people but they may tend to focus on one learning modality,” she says. “We may have somebody that’s really expert in building simulations for the classroom, for example. How then do we re-skill them to incorporate technology in to that?” she says.

Deloitte aims to run a pilot scheme to educate its L&D team on the possibilities and capabilities of MOOC platforms. “We really want to open up their minds to the art of the possible. If we can add a technology component to our programmes, it better meets the needs of where our learners are,” adds Gale.

Sam Burrough, online learning consultant and co-founder of MOOC Makers, says that when it comes to designing a MOOC the key challenge for L&D teams is to design an experience that “compels people to come back, convinces them to make regular time to consume the content and contribute to the discussions”.

Tips for creating your own MOOC:

  • A MOOC needs a recognisable structure with a start and finish.
  • Aim to create meaningful interactions between learners.
  • Delivery is crucial – you need to convince learners to make regular time to consume the content and contribute to discussions.
  • Consider using game mechanics to engage learners and ensure there is a payoff or some recognition for completing it.
  • Start with a low-risk topic of broad interest to the organisation, create some structure, curate some content and look at what tools you have to run the MOOC.
  • With a bit of thought, you can run small MOOCs on enterprise networks such as Yammer and Chatter.

Sam Burrough, co-founder, MOOC Makers


Burrough ran a MOOC on digital skills for L&D professionals at the start of the year. He created his course on the Curatr platform, which enables course designers to embed game mechanics in to the MOOC. This means users can vote via comments and earn points through participation.

“Gamification can be really helpful in motivating people to keep going,” says Burrough. “Mobile access is essential to increase the opportunities for participation and finally designing the right nudges at the right times to keep people motivated and ticking along. Of course, if there is a good payoff at the end that helps too, whether it’s recognition or reward.”

Betts says that designing a MOOC requires a very different approach to designing a typical course: “The MOOC routine isn’t a ‘fire and forget’ routine. It isn’t the same as building a piece of courseware and putting it online. You can do that, and lots of people do that, and it’s very successful. A MOOC is something that has a basis in content, but has many other channels that can work in real time, or asynchronously, or whatever. If you’re going to run a successful MOOC, you want to start conversations.”

This social interaction is key for Deloitte, which says that learners want to be able to collaborate with one another on a platform that is simple to use.

Lester concurs; he says that in the UK, people like to learn in groups and through discussion, which makes MOOCs an ideal platform for engaging online learning experiences: “They are designed in a way that really encourages you to participate. The more the participation, the richer the commentary, the better the experience.”


MOOCs aren’t without their challenges, however. Bersin by Deloitte says that the top challenges for organisations looking to use MOOCs can be the length of the courses (too long), whether or not the course content is of high enough quality and whether or not they can be customised to an organisation’s specific needs.

There have also been issues about the security of the data held within the MOOC platform and how this data can be integrated with existing learning management systems.

Betts says that the quality of the content is an issue and that employers need to have a way of checking the suitability of courses. If courses are provided by respected educational institutions then those courses will be quality assured, says Lester. And if they are not, then L&D can screen MOOCs for suitability.

Aside from the issue of content quality, Betts says organisations need to be realistic about the return on investment of creating their own MOOCs.

“You are going to sink a lot of time and money into building one and there is no guarantee of a return. It will be a bit like going to a trade show; you’ll be aware that people are there, but it will be very hard to put a tangible value on what a MOOC is worth to you. From a pure return on investment point of view, I think that it’s unlikely to turn you a buck, but can work from a market awareness point of view.”

Early days

Finally, the MOOC market is relatively young, which means that L&D teams looking to use MOOC platforms will be setting out on their own learning journeys as there simply is little research and experience of MOOCs in corporate training to draw on.

Deloitte’s Gale says that MOOC vendors have disrupted the corporate training market, which has caused established technology vendors to respond with MOOC-like functionality. The upshot for L&D teams is that they really need to understand the market and the business problem they are trying to solve.

“This has been a learning journey for me and my staff. Everybody is trying to get into the MOOC marketplace and non-MOOC players are adapting their technology to be more MOOC like,” says Gale.

“My advice would be to make sure you really understand what your business problem is in order to find the fit that works for you.”

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