Education in the Cloud: MOOCs at Work


Got MOOCs? It’s an increasingly relevant question since Massively Open Online Courses made their debut just five short years ago.

The first MOOCs started in Canada in 2008, with courses in Connectivism and Connective Knowledge at the University of Manitoba. Dubbed c-MOOCs, these courses attempt to recreate–to the extent possible–classroom experience, and are suited for humanities courses, or business courses where a group dynamic is important, including negotiation and interpersonal skills.

In 2011, Stanford University pioneered the so-called x-MOOC which is all about instructional learning; i.e., delivery of lecture materials suited to math, science, computer science, and engineering. In 2011, Stanford University created a seismic shift in MOOCs when about 160,000 students showed up for an artificial intelligence and robotics course.

“That’s a pretty big classroom,” cracked Keith Devlin, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, and director of H- STAR Institute.

Now a player on the feld of higher learning, MOOCs are evolving and not surprisingly, experts are asking what limits there are to what MOOCs can do. The broader implications for higher education are fairly obvious; the “democratization of education,” because students around the globe can have access to courses to which they otherwise would not be exposed.

MOOCs are also said to be “disruptive” to otherwise static higher education models, and have been called “the Napster of education.” But, the sweet spot for MOOCs is in corporate training and education, especially for large, far-fung, and increasingly mobile workforces.


The Canadian model is particularly apt for corporate training, with its emphasis on recreating a classroom experience, with added novel elements such as collaborative learning and peer review. Corporations are well suited to fund this sort of training, as it has the immediate potential to improve the bottom line. Of course, there’s less attrition than one would see in a general population MOOC, because the students are in “class” as part of their jobs.

Because of its built-in audience, the most fertile marketplace for MOOCs may be the corporate arena.

Intel and McAfee are among corporations using MOOCs. But these early adopters represent a “scratching of the surface” of the emerging market. According to Bersin by Deloitte, 70% of its members are interested in exploring the use of MOOCs for corporate training. While only seven percent of organizations surveyed by MOOCs@Work are using MOOCs for corporate training, more than four times that many, 31%, say they plan to.

Bersin identifes seven ways corporations are using MOOCs:

>> Building talent pipelines

On-boarding new employees

>> Self-directed development

>> Workforce training

>> Educating partners and customers

>> Brand marketing

>> Collaboration and innovation

Corporations with workforce training programs include Google, which has enrolled 80,000 employees in Udacity’s HTML5 course; Aquent, which has created an in-house “MOOC Gymnasium” for design, coding, and HTML skills; and steel pipe manufacturer Tenaris, which is teaming up with edX’s platform and learning materials for its employee learning program.


Utilizing a characteristic of MOOCs called “fipping the classroom,” most learning is expected to develop not from a lecture, but by allowing employees to access the mate- rial and having them collaborate through discussion among themselves and the instructor. Afer all, they’re the ones with a vested interest in the material as it relates to something concrete, their jobs.

There is a precedent for this type of learning in academia, the “study group,” in which typically graduate students band together to study for a test. The flaws to study groups is that the group was only as good as the individual students‘ contributions, and at the end of the exercise, the participants were competing against each other, rather than cooperating, which may blunt their motivation to collaborate.

“MOOCs are expected to be in in- creasing demand, because they have the potential to improve upon corporate learning tech now in place and at less cost,” said Donald Clark, founder of Epic Group Ltd.

Rather than dip into higher-priced specifc courses for individual projects, MOOCs can lead the way to continuous professional development at a lower cost than more traditional learning. “It’s the content that corporations are interested in, and not so much the box,” reports Clark.

The cost issue is also helped by sponsored MOOCs, as part of a social responsibility push or as simple marketing, and AT&T and Google are already on board with this approach, he says.

Devlin identifes five major attributes of successful MOOCs.

1) Building Communities of Learning

While this might be an issue in academics, corporations have built in “communities of learning” in their every day activities. The reason MOOCs are popping up is that corporations can’t keep up with the amount of learning necessary for their employees to do their jobs.

2) Generating, Facilitating, Supporting and Encouraging Group Interaction

Most MOOC commentators agree this is the chief element of successful online learning. Which is a paradox, since the MOOC group may not be in the same room or continent when the MOOC is occurring.

“There’s a lot that goes on in a classroom, the human interactions–that’s probably not scalable,” says Devlin. “But, for those not physically located in the same space, technology can help fill in some of the gaps through email, skype, or text messaging.”

“The lecturer is the conductor of the orchestra,” Devlin says, “but basically the orchestra does the work. The lectures are a pacing mechanism for written materials, and can be streamed or downloaded.” If they are streamed, there’s obviously the opportunity for real time, immediate interactivity of some sort, but if downloaded, they might be available to those who can’t make the class at a particular time, which also has value.

But the content may wind up as something other than a lecture. “I don’t think you’re going to get away without very small group interaction with someone who knows what they’re talking about, period,” Devlin explains. “One thing that should go is the classic lecture; the lecture began as a way of disseminating information before the printing press because only one person in town had a book–that surely will go now.”

Perhaps a blending is in order; discussions guided by an expert of some sort that allows for group discussion activity in real time. There may also be a period for group reflection after whatever presentation is the springboard for the discussion. Since MOOCs are often large groups, the cohort may need to be seg- mented according to its role in the firm or in mixed function smaller groups so participants can have meaningful interaction. The group could broadcast its findings if that is an element of the learning to Twitter or other social media.

“Working with a cohort works well once you form the cohort,” Devlin says. “You can bond with people quite remarkably even though you’ve never met them.”

3) Peer Evaluation

Of increasing interest in MOOC learning is the notion of peer review. This, afer all, is the basis of much academic ladder climbing, so it seems natural that academics would be interested in its adaptation to what is typically called “grading.” In the corporate environment, where competition is a constant, integrating peer evaluation might require some imagination.

Devlin says neither pedagogues nor business managers have a monopoly on the kinds of skills needed to be an astute evaluator–a computer could do it.

“Those of us in this business think we’ve got the ability to look at a student and say ‘he’s worth a an A, or a B minus’ which sounds an awful like the coaches at the Oakland A’s before Billy Beane brought in the stats guy who says you don’t need scouts to pick a baseball team you just need a big enough data base and a computer,” Devlin says. “So I won’t be surprised to learn that peer grading can work very well with the caveat that the outliers are probably going to get screwed because that kind of thing works better in the middle of the bell curve.”

Of course, if you’re going to be evaluating others, you’re going to need to know the material. “A hard thing to do is to evaluate other peers’ work,” Devlin says. “I try to get my students to act as instructors to learn how to think about the material and therefore they’ll be able to evaluate each other. Or as one student said, ‘I really started to understand the material when I was grading others.’ Peer grading is unbelievably valuable.”

In the corporate world, the “evaluation” may wind up being part of some sort of collaborative doing, such as being part of a team launching a new product or service, rather than showing knowledge as a response on an exam. What we call “evaluation” almost automatically brings to mind a grade, but that might not be the goal in evaluating MOOC generated learning.

“Coursera-based MOOCs rely on ‘interactive exercises’ for student engagement,” reports Scott Cronenweth, from analytics firm Socrato!. “They also can provide post-testing feedback on concepts that a learner didn’t test well on (a process called ‘mastery learning’). Coursera also acknowledges that in many courses, the most meaningful assignments do not lend themselves easily to automated grading by a computer. Peer assessments in Coursera leverage a ‘grading rubric’ to help students to assess others reliably and provide useful feedback. Coursera also employs a form of crowd-sourcing, in which multiple ratings are combined to yield a meaningful score. The idea is that if multiple students grade each homework, grading ‘accuracy’ comparable to what a TA could provide ti is achievable. Plus, the peer evaluation process is a useful form of learning for students. In other words: it’s about the learning, not the grades…”

Peer evaluating might wind up being a valuable skill in its own right, for which corporate evaluators would be valued and ultimately compensated.

4) Accreditation

Clark downplays the signifcance of certifcates or accreditation. “Organizations want skills and competences, not bits of paper,” he says. “This is ofen a message lost on education providers. It is also a good reason for MOOCs being more relevant, unshackled by the obsession with paper certifcation.”

Or it may be that the collegiate multi-year credential will be replaced with a series of “badges” for proving valuable competencies.

Devlin says accreditation will move out of the university sphere altogether in as little as 10 years. Some people may have degrees but most people will probably have a portfolio issued by an independent accrediting agency. Coursera and Accredible are two examples of the latter. “The train has left the station on that one,” he says.

5) Develop Appropriate Metrics to Test Learning

This is another one of those concerns that may be more pertinent to academia than enterprise. In a traditional college learning environment, the professor is in many cases teaching students what they need to know to pass the exam, the exam being an artificial instrument to be mastered, on the way to an equally abstract “degree,” which may have little to do with what the student winds up pursuing once they leave the classroom. Indeed, this is one of the chief criticisms that workforce managers level against the traditional academic system.

However, if a group of workers is engaged in an enterprise, they will need to fgure out what they need to know to advance the enterprise, and being wrong has very real consequences. But the performance of the enterprise is an accurate way to measure if the enterprise employees asked the right questions and learned the right lessons.

Simulations and gamification might also come into play, as these offer the opportunity to test learning without using live bullets.

It’s increasingly apparent that MOOCs will play a major part in corporate learning in years to come. In fact, it is likely that the educational landscape may change from a degree based system where one studies for years in order to qualify for a job, to a guild or apprentice based system, where the work starts much earlier and workers learn on the job throughout their careers.

This story was derived in part from a lecture by Stanford University Prof. Keith Devlin of the H-STAR Institute. For the full lecture visit: a09300c410

Access the Bersin by Deloitte presentation at: moo-cs-forslideshare12-29054376


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