Individuals Not Organizations Embrace MOOCs for Training

By Cait Etherington
January 22, 2018

A new study suggests that, while individuals appear to be ready and willing to embrace MOOCs as an affordable and in some cases free way to reskill, they continue to be largely ignored by organizations. Given that U.S. companies spent an estimated $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015 (and that number continues to edge up annually), the fact that private companies continue to ignore the benefits of MOOCs is especially surprising.

The Organizational Underuse of MOOCs

As Monica Hamori reported in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, the underuse of MOOCs is widespread and troubling. As Hamori emphasizes, “Companies say they want their people to learn and grow, but in practice they’re skimping on training, often leaving it to individuals to manage their own development.” In a recent survey of 1,481 employed learners, Hamori found that more than one-third of her sample (mostly managers and knowledge workers taking online courses) said they had received no training from their organizations in the previous 12 months. However, Hamori further observes, “Things look even worse if you consider what’s happening in the workforce more broadly. In the United States the proportion of people who received employer-funded training decreased from 21% in 2001 to 15% in 2009 (the most recent data available). And business cycles weren’t to blame: The decline was steeper in boom periods than during recessions. That means a lot of people who want to become better at their jobs are fending for themselves.”

It is no secret that companies could reverse this trend by encouraging employees to enrol in MOOCs and even covering the minimal cost associated with some, but there is little sign that this is happening. Notwithstanding the few exceptions (according to Hamori, AT&T, GE, L’Oréal, and Marks & Spencer are among the organizations that currently do promote employee enrollment in MOOCs), most organizations continue to overlook MOOCs as an affordable and accessible way to reskill workers. Indeed, according to Hamori, its the employee not employer who typically bears the burden of the cost for enrolling in a MOOC, even when the employee intends to use the knowledge they have acquired on the job: “About 67% of the employed learners I surveyed said that they would apply their new knowledge and skills in their current jobs or companies (and 27% said they planned to use them exclusively there), but only 5% received financial help from their employers, 8% percent got time off to study, and 4% had the coursework included in their performance evaluations. So most people were basically left to their own devices.”

Why Organizations Continue to Overlook the Value of MOOCs

If companies continue to ignore MOOCs as a viable training option, it likely has something to do with broader misconceptions about what types of training are valuable. All too often, organizations consider training an opportunity to provide workers with knowledge directly applicable to current workplace situations. While such training is necessary when it comes to issues such as compliance, in reality, building skills, even soft skills, is more likely to engage workers and ensure an organization has a highly skilled and adaptable workforce that can weather any changes or challenges that arise over time.

For the the minority of companies who are already choosing to support MOOCs as a training option for employees, the signs are encouraging. According to Hamori, when employers support employees’ MOOC-based training, MOOC completion rates soar. When employers provide financial support for the completion of a MOOC, these rates are even higher.

As Hamori’s study suggests, despite ongoing concerns about the need to reskill workers and the cost of such initiatives, a solution may already be in plain sight. The only problem is that to date, most organizations refuse to see or accept the incredible value of MOOCs.