Linux Foundation plans introductory Linux MOOC on edX

The online learning platform is now including material from six nonacademic institutions to meet user demand

The Linux Foundation will offer a Linux development course on edX, the massive open online course (MOOC) platform developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The move is part of an edX effort, announced Thursday, to expand its course offerings to include content from nonacademic institutions. All edX content previously came from the nonprofit's 32 member schools, which include the University of California, Berkeley; Dartmouth College and McGill University.

The foundation's MOOC will offer the same material taught in its introduction to Linux class, which is designed for people with little to no experience with the open-source OS. People can start taking the MOOC this summer; the exact date will be disclosed next month. The Linux class will be free and available to anyone with a Web connection. The foundation normally charges $2,500 for the course, which is already taught online and in person through authorized training partners.

The need for Linux professionals is outpacing the talent supply, said Jim Zemlin, director of the Linux Foundation, noting that the OS helps run stock exchanges, Android smartphones and many cloud computing services. EdX courses offer an affordable and easy way to help solve the Linux talent shortage, he said.

"Linux has just seen this insane adoption across every sector of technology," he said. "That's all great but as use of Linux rises we need to keep up with demand. This is a way for people to get familiar with Linux."

For edX, adding content from organizations outside of academia would address requests for professional development material, said Anant Agarwal, president of edX.

"Many of our students are looking for courses on topics that enable them to get a better job or bridge skill gaps, and Linux is one example [of that]," he said. "A verified certificate from the Linux Foundation would have a lot of credibility in the marketplace."

According to two surveys, the IT job market is professionally and financially rewarding for IT workers who know Linux. In the Linux Foundation's annual jobs report, nearly 90% of the survey's approximately 4,000 respondents reported that knowing Linux gave them more career opportunities. A salary survey from IT job website noted that Linux professionals received an average salary raise of 5% in 2013 compared to a 2.6% average increase for IT workers without Linux skills.

These benefits, Zemlin believes, could motivate enrollees to stick with the class and earn a completion certificate, bucking the low course completion rates MOOCs have seen. Data examining edX's first year of use showed that of the 841,687 people who signed up for edX classes, 43,196 of them received a completion certification.

"People come in, take a course and Linux is demystified for them," Zemlin said. He said that Amazon alone has 2,000 jobs that require a Linux background.

People who earn a certificate, though, shouldn't expect to immediately work on or contribute to high-level Linux projects. While jobs have different skill requirements, passing the MOOC course and acquiring some self-taught Linux skills could land a person a system administration position, Zemlin said.

"The course is not designed to teach you to code in C," he said. "They're going to learn how to use it to do some rudimentary things." With that base, he said, people can take advanced Linux courses or learn new skills from their peers by contributing to open-source projects.

Companies are starting to warm to the idea of online learning, said Agarwal, as more people turn to a MOOC to advance their careers.

"Traditionally employers have focused on a degree but we're seeing more employers and organizations that are trying to promote awareness that there are alternate forms of credentialing," he said. "I think that [an edX certificate] would be very useful for jobs and a course from the Linux Foundation would go a long way in that direction. My hope is that the MOOCs provide a credentialing mechanism that helps people get jobs."

Course grazers who review only certain portions of a class -- a segment represented by 505,639 edX students in its first year -- and don't get a credential are also welcomed to study Linux and take an edX MOOC.

"You're talking to the Linux guys," said Zemlin. "That's fine to us. It's free. Take what you like."

Judging the success of MOOCs by course completion rates misses the point that people "are looking to get different things out of MOOCs," said Agarwal. A perfect edX course completion rate doesn't indicate success if the MOOC "taught you nothing."

"It could take us time to figure out what is the right metric of success for a MOOC," he said. "We don't even know what the right metric for success for universities are. Is it that you passed or is it getting a quality education or is it that you obtained a job? There's more than one metric. Focusing on completion rates is not right."

The other five nonacademic institutions joining edX include the International Monetary Fund, The Smithsonian Institution and the Inter-American Development Bank. Seven academic institutions also became edX members including Colgate University, Hamilton College and the Open Courseware Consortium.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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