MOOCs put a new spin on professional development

MOOCs can bring agility and efficiency to enterprise IT training and skills development

moocs and the enterprise
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Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, bring to enterprise training and professional development some of the same qualities that companies seek in their IT systems and infrastructure: agility, efficiency and cost effectiveness.

As companies undergo digital transformations – deploying mobile, cloud, analytics and sensor technologies, to name a few – they’re having to rethink traditional IT roles and responsibilities. There’s pressure on IT departments to deliver new capabilities faster, which means IT training and skills development has to happen faster, says Karsten Scherer, global analyst relations lead at IT staffing and talent management provider TEKsystems. Training methods that were valid and effective 15 years ago aren’t going to cut it.

"The opinion of businesses regarding online courses has shifted a lot over the last several years," Scherer says. Companies used to question if online courses were legitimate, but the pressure to be more agile is changing the way they educate their employees. "They're actively looking for partnership opportunities with MOOCs or encouraging their employees to leverage them," he says. 

At the same time, MOOCs have matured, emerging as a valid platform for enterprise training, continuing education and professional development. They’re not perfect – benefits such as cost-effectiveness and convenience can be offset by poor completion rates and difficulty validating course quality and authenticating users. But the IT industry changes quickly, and MOOCs often can tackle cutting-edge technology topics more easily than traditional classroom training or degree programs.

“We’re just at the beginning of realizing the full potential of online learning. Today’s workplace demands an ever-changing skillset, and for most working adults, it’s unrealistic and too expensive to go back to school full-time,” says Gregory Boutte, vice president of content at online learning marketplace Udemy, which is focused on skills-based learning taught by experts in the field.

“Udemy courses fill the gaps in someone’s skill set with actionable knowledge that can be applied as soon as it’s gained. That’s a huge benefit for busy adults who aren’t interested in theory and need to dive directly into the instruction that will help them reach their career goals quickly,” Boutte says.

MOOCs give students opportunities to practice what they’re learning – and ask questions based on their practice – that aren’t always possible in a traditional instructor-led learning environment, says Sarah Thompson, principal consultant at Xerox Learning Services.

“With a MOOC, you have the ability to provide the core content to the learners, but more importantly the ability to practice and have discussions about their experience,” Thompson says. “A well-designed MOOC can assess the existing expertise of the learners, provide core content specific to new technology, and provide a cohort group in which they can collaborate to gain knowledge and skills.”

Videos, simulations and challenge-based missions can help learners develop new skills. “It allows for better reinforcement of the learning,” Thompson says.

Tech players including SAP have moved from release cycles measured in years to release cycles measured in months or even weeks. Given the pace of advancement in tech and the momentum behind companies’ digital transformations, traditional classroom or instructor-led training is “too slow for professionals,” says Bernd Welz, executive vice president and global head of scale, enablement and transformation at SAP.

SAP through its openSAP platform has been delivering courses in MOOC format since 2013. "What we've learned from MOOCs that started in the academic world is that collaboration matters,” Welz says. "Most of us learn much better if there's some social activity going on around it, where we can have an exchange with other learners and can actually access an expert that can help with questions."

So far, SAP has delivered 70 openSAP enterprise MOOCs since 2013, with more than 330,000 learners and 1.1 million course enrollments. "Today we have seven times more people in our digital learning platforms than people who come into our classrooms. The flexibility and accessibility of digital learning is very appealing,” Welz says. "It's a fantastic way to scale for us, for sure."

Lifelong learners

From the viewpoint of a person taking the course, MOOCs provide a way to demonstrate expertise and initiative – which is valuable for someone who’s trying to get a promotion or find a new job or pursue a new career path.

A job candidate might show expertise in an emerging technology such as SDN, for example, by listing courses completed on Udacity or edX or Coursera.

"At the very least, that shows you that this potential employee has initiative and went through a process of identifying what they needed to figure out to continue to be relevant in IT, and went and did it on their own time, likely on their own dime,” Scherer says. "That says to a potential hiring manager, ‘that's an entrepreneur, that's somebody who's got a realistic view of self and skills and is trying to figure out, through these MOOCs and maybe other mechanisms, how to get better.’ Those are all things that I would want on my team and in my employees."

From an employer’s perspective, “MOOCs are excellent at quick and agile knowledge turnarounds for your IT staff. You need to train a tech person efficiently in a short amount of time? These courses are the solution,” says Pierre-Renaud Tremblay, director of human resources at Dupray, which sells steam cleaners and steam irons.

“They provide cost-effective alternatives, as long as the quality of the courses are credible. Is each employee actually learning something of substance? Has the course been vetted? Is the employee able to utilize his newly-learned skills in a working environment?” Tremblay says.

Support of MOOC learning also can be a differentiator in the war for tech talent. Desirable candidates often are in a position to choose from among multiple job offers, and existing employees can be hard to retain. Companies that are committed to ongoing learning and education – and offer their employees the time and incentive to take MOOCs – can stand out among the hiring competition.

"There's that notion that you want to teach your people to the extent that they could easily get jobs elsewhere because they're attractive candidates, but you want to keep them happy enough that they want to stay,” Scherer says. "That's the balance that every organization that invests in up-skilling tries to find."

Helping to fill the demand for tech talent is the driver behind Cybrary, a community built around free cybersecurity education. "Our plan is to basically get people up to speed and ready for jobs, and then help to place them with companies," says Ryan Corey, co-founder at Cybrary.

The high cost of traditional cybersecurity training puts it out of reach for most individuals. "$5,000 for a one-week advanced cybersecurity course is outrageous. It's also impractical. That same course that you just paid $5,000 for could potentially be 100% obsolete in 18 to 24 months because the technology changes so fast," Corey says.

Cybrary brings together security training resources, community and skills validation – and then helps companies tap emerging security talent. "They really want to find creative ways of getting in front of the next generations of cybersecurity professionals out there," Corey says.

From the perspective of the instructor, MOOCs can provide a platform for sharing expertise and being compensated for it.

Udemy, for example, aims to differentiate itself from other MOOC providers by relying on real-world experts, rather than academic instructors, to create content. “We believe anyone with expertise and passion can share their knowledge with the world, and some of the best teachers aren’t always found in front of a traditional classroom,” Boutte says. “We’re unleashing a previously untapped resource -- the skills and knowledge of real-world practitioners.”

Choose wisely and keep perspective

Hiring managers and HR executives have some advice for IT pros who are exploring MOOCs as a way to further their education. 

Technical pros can supplement a lack of recent or relevant skills and formal education with MOOCs, but “keep in mind that listing a MOOC is only an advantage if the course is both relevant and completed. Only about 10% of students complete MOOCs, so completed courses show potential employers that ability to follow through with your commitments,” says Sham Mustafa, founder and CEO of Correlation One, a job matchmaking marketplace for data scientists.

“It's also critical to follow up MOOC learning with evidence of your newly acquired skills, including competitions and project work, and allow easy access to your code on online project hosting platforms like GitHub,” Mustafa says.

Be choosy about which courses to take and which to include on a resume, adds Dupray’s Tremblay.

“HR professionals know which IT MOOCs are fast and easy, and which ones require knowledge and time. The fast and easy ones do not impress us,” Tremblay says. “There are a certain technical MOOCs that have far greater respectability and acceptance than others. Usually this has to do with the reputation of the company or university offering the course.”

Unsure whether to list MOOCs on your IT resume? “Do not list ones that are easy to obtain. Anything that takes less than 50 hours to complete is unworthy of being on your resume,” Tremblay says. “Include the courses that are highly relevant to the position you are applying for.”

Ideally, tech pros should pair their completed MOOC with evidence of real working experience or education, Tremblay adds.

“Do not overemphasize the importance of a MOOC. Yes, you’ve learned something valuable. But so can anybody else. Real-world work experience and education still have precedent.”

This story, "MOOCs put a new spin on professional development" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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