Guillaume Dumas, a 28-year-old Canadian, made headlines recently when he announced that he had obtained an Ivy League education for free by sneaking in to classes at prestigious universities. His story — coupled with the skyrocketing costs of a college education — raised serious doubts about the value of a diploma. With tuition costs rising and more than a trillion dollars of student debt in America, alternate routes to achieving a top-tier education are increasingly attractive. The big question for HR: Should we start worrying less about an applicant's degree and more about the knowledge an applicant brings to the company?
While a Dumas-style education is still an anomaly, hiring managers are likely to encounter candidates who have taken Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). According to Class Central, more than 2400 of these online lectures currently exist from more than 400 universities—including 22 of U.S. News & World Report's Top 25 Universities.
The topics and structures of these courses vary widely. Students can sign up online to learn about anything from Roman Architecture to Web Application Architecture. Some MOOCs are free, some come at a cost. And some simply involve listening to lectures—with no way to verify that the student learned anything—while others provide assignments, tests and a certification for passing the course.
Here, 5 things to consider when a MOOC shows up on a resume:
1. MOOCs can be supplemental to traditional education.
Steve Petersen is a web developer in his early 30s, and most of his resume looks just like you'd expect. He has a Bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University, a Master's degree from the University of Maryland and great experience in web development, marketing and strategy. But his education also includes 4 MOOC certifications from prestigious institutions—for instance, a Gamification class from the University of Pennsylvania.
"MOOCs allow me to explore something interesting with a bona fide expert as a guide," shared Peterson. As a hiring manager, it's easy to evaluate his supplemental courses as having value. He's achieved a traditional four-year degree and sought out supplementary knowledge—in this case, you should count MOOCs as a bonus.
2. MOOCs can be a stand-alone education.
Some candidates may not have a college degree at all, instead racking up a range of MOOCs since graduating from high school. How do you evaluate a MOOC in that situation?
First, ask about the qualifications behind a certification. Is it simply a certificate of completion, meaning your candidate listened to all the lectures? Or does the certification indicate some evaluation by the professor? Coursera, for instance, has special features ensuring that people who take their courses get proper credit for their classes. Udacity offers a series of tests along the way that allow course participants to show they've gained knowledge.
3. Skills from a MOOC – just like a degree – need to be demonstrated.
Remember to ask hard questions and test candidates on their skills. We all know someone who skated through college, cramming before tests and immediately forgetting the information afterwards. Someone who said they learned how to program in Python via a course from Udemy shouldn't just be handed the job. But someone who says they've learned Python from a top-tier university shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt either.
Either way, be wary of automatically giving preference to the candidate with the brick and mortar diploma. Programming is a skill, and it doesn't really matter how you gained that skill.
4. MOOCs demonstrate a thirst for knowledge in established workers.
If the resume on your desk is from a mid-career professional with great experience, a MOOC shows that the person is constantly working, learning and growing—qualities you certainly want in a candidate. While we all learn and grow through work in general, someone who has taken the time to seek out additional knowledge on her own is a bonus to your organization.
5. MOOCs offer opportunities to expand your own horizons.
As you see more and more MOOCs showing up on resumes, stop and consider if you should take one yourself. Want to learn about microeconomics? Check out Khan Academy. Want to learn more about organizational management? Coursera offers such a course from the University of Geneva.
When you've experienced a MOOC course yourself, you'll start to understand the value of different kinds of online courses in the candidates you evaluate.