The beauty of MOOCs

Author’s note: While we are on the subjects of MOOCs and how they can help us grow, I wanted to dig out my post that originally appeared on AAAS MemberCentral. This is practically in it’s original form, with only a few minor updated information. 

31511-400x300-Benefits_of_on_the_Job_TraiMassive open online courses, MOOCs, are creating quite a stir. Bill Gates thinks that this online movement for knowledge will “decouple” universities from the degree. They are good for those who can’t physically make it to a class—like a busy single mother with a full-time job and others that lead full-time lives. They are also good for those in developing countries, like Khadijah Niazi, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl who took and passed a rigorous physics class despite limitations. Just search for “MOOC” in your favorite search engine, and you’ll find hundreds of heartwarming tales of low-income people from all over the world getting a high-end educational experience for free. But, is a MOOC suitable for business applications, such as career development and hiring?

A MOOC is a university and college supported online course that is freely accessible via the internet. While they are more than similar to university courses, they offer no academic credit, but some of them offer certificates upon completion of the class. This can be seen as a revolution for academia or a huge financial disruption for longstanding academic institutions—after Georgia Institute of Technology showed that they could get a master’s degree in computer science down to $6,600.

One of the prime concerns about MOOCs is whether they are really feasible as an educational platform. Along with the heartwarming stories mentioned above, there is also a massive failure that is worth mentioning. Udacity and San Jose State tried to set up a program that would allow students to take remedial math classes online for course credit. Unfortunately, this pilot didn’t succeed. About half the students were from the university, and the other half from Oakland Military Institute—a chartered high school. The pilot tried to give students a chance to pass remedial math classes in a context that may not have been beneficial for them. In a phone interview, Lietenant Colonel Mark Ryan, the superintendent of Oakland Military Institute, said that although the students didn’t pass, they all learned a lot more than they would have without the pilot program. For instance, he said, the students at the high school were all an ethnic minority without computers and time outside of school to give the class a fair shot.

Ryan learned that he would need to have more of a structure for the kids to follow, as well as a way to send the kids home with a laptop they could use to do their homework at night. In fact, they reported such a positive view of the experience that Ryan, along with Oakland’s Governor Brown, were looking forward to the next round of MOOCs so they can implement what they learned and see how well they can succeed. However, as of last year Ryan was no longer the superintendent of Oakland Military Institute, there has been no further news reported about this experiment, and I couldn’t get in contact with the current superintendent before the publishing of this article.

No aspect of a MOOC is easy. Students and professors alike still have a huge time commitment to make, just like a real class. The difference is a lack of office hours. With a single class usually having several hundred and up to thousands of students all across the world, the professors are inaccessible. Instead, it’s a teach-yourself-teach-each-other sort of class setting; it’s definitely not for everyone. The professors keep track of progress by quizzes, exams, and projects that are turned in. If you’ve stuck with the class, done well with all the exams, then you may be able to get a certificate. There are some colleges, like Southern Methodist University, that will accept certain classes for college credit as well.

creating-value-and-driving-customer-satisfactionDespite of all this, there are huge questions out there on whether or not taking a MOOC can help you get a job. I polled several of my colleagues that own various types of businesses from retail to environmental consulting firms to mid-sized R&Ds. It would seem the consensus is that all of the owners are fine with incoming employees having theoretical knowledge from a MOOC, but they’d prefer to see working knowledge that requires hands on practice from a school. The skills required to work at any of these places are squarely centered on knowing and being able to practice good science. Many of us agreed that there was no way for a person to get good lab skills with a Do-It-Yourself education like that, thus you would have to have the time and funding to train the entrant without them. I, personally, value on the job training for our team and made sure it was part of the budget for all of them to become lifelong learners in everything.

What about the skills, such as theory or computer work, that don’t require special equipment and hands-on experience? Many of us tried a class over the spring and early fall that we thought would help increase our skills. I personally took a CS class that involved learning how to program something that might be used as a startup project, then put it out there as a crowd-sourced project. The idea wasn’t necessarily to start your own company, but to go through all the steps and see how far you got. The class was far from easy. The take-home for all of us “guinea pigs” was that a class where the hands-on experience revolves around a computer, or is theory work, is going to be along the same calibre and work load that you’d take at a university. If a possible employee has a certificate, they likely earned the skills for it. It is recommended to test them, though, since there is no safeguard against plagiarism and cheating within these systems yet.

While MOOC cannot and will never be able to replace the hands-on experience and personal communication with a professor, it can be a good place to pick up a few extra skills, such as learning some more coding or other computer-based skill. If you want to broaden your horizons in a different field, such as English literature, history, and others that require more book work and paper writing, you’re also looking at a fairly good educational experience there too.

As for hiring, many of my colleagues as well as myself are looking at MOOCs as a way to enhance our employees’ skills. Even Kaplan, the community college where I teach at, looks for their employees to increase their worth and value certificates from MOOCs highly. While it’s not out of the question to hire CS majors that got their credentials purely off this type of program, we have to keep in mind that the potential for cheating is still there. This alone makes it more likely that business owners and corporations in the environmental and R&D areas will likely lean heavily on using MOOCs for this front rather than for hiring, at least for a while longer.