MOOCs for Executive Education

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are free or low-cost online educational courses that can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. They exploded onto the scene when top American universities such as Stanford, Harvard, Yale and MIT began providing free, online versions of their courses. These became so popular that it wasn’t long before corporate audiences were also being catered for. The result was thousands of MOOCs for executives, ranging from corporate leadership and people management, to public speaking and negotiation. Though courses in computer science and engineering continue to be the most popular, programmes in areas such as financial and business management are well received too.

Mike Bergelson, CEO of Everwise – a mentoring match-maker company – notes that although they cannot replace formal education, they can be useful in supplementing it: “They won’t be as impressive on your résumé as a college degree, and they won’t help you if a job you’re going for requires particular educational qualifications. But they can certainly increase your applied skills – something all employers value.”

There are various reasons an executive might decide to register for a MOOC, but the Harvard Business Review found that the majority of users (52%) do so in the hope of improving their career prospects, and it refers to these users as “career builders”. “Of these career builders,” the Harvard Business Review (HBR) states online, “87% report a career benefit of some kind…Thirty-three percent of career builders report a tangible benefit as a result of completing a MOOC, with the majority of those respondents finding a new job or starting their own business.”
As well having the potential to improve your career, proponents argue that MOOCs have disrupted executive education by providing an alternative to individuals who do not want to return to traditional education. From the comfort of one’s living room or office desk, completing a MOOC successfully could well result in better pay, a promotion or even a new job. But executive employees are not the only ones who are making the most of MOOCs – companies are also realising their value.

It is now extremely common for organisations to put the use of MOOCs at the centre of their employee training and development programmes, in the hope that they will contribute to the creation of a highly skilled workforce. In fact, many organisations market free access to these courses as part of their employee benefits. Yahoo, Google and McAfee are just a few that encourage the use of MOOCs for self-managed learning, with other companies partnering up with MOOC providers in order to spot potential talent. An increasing number of organisations are also using them for work-based training.

Although advocates of MOOCs would say that they are useful for executives since they are usually self-paced, flexible, inexpensive and have the potential to improve careers, there are lots who remain unconvinced. The Times Higher Education reports one finding that puts the completion rate for MOOCs at less than 7%, while the Economist cites a 90% drop out rate. Despite the thousands of people that are signing up for these courses, only a small fraction actually passes. For this reason, some may argue that though they might be popular, MOOCs can often be ineffective. The lack of face-to-face interaction, a physical teacher and a physical learning environment could well be a demotivating factor, making these courses a double-edged sword: liberating for independent learners; damning for those who need more support.

Though Bergelson appreciates their benefits, he rests somewhere in the middle of the argument: “MOOCs are an easy way to access an abundant choice of good quality education cheaply and on your own schedule. The limited personal interaction and lack of structure, depth and accreditation typical of MOOCs means they may not be a form of career development that’s suitable for everyone – but if you take the initiative and put in the time and effort on your own, they can be a valuable activity within your overall career progress endeavors.”

Written by

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.

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