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More than two years ago, Stanford University became the catalyst for what was expected to be a revolution in higher education: free, non-degree online courses that anyone, anywhere in the world could sign up for. These "Massive Open Online Courses," or MOOCs, captured the imaginations of not just leading academics but also experts in the $150 billion field of workplace training.

In a survey cited by workplace expert Jeanne Meister in Forbes, 70 percent of corporate learning and HR professionals said they saw the potential for MOOCs to improve their own training initiatives. Among the benefits predicted: empowering employees to upgrade their skills at their own pace and to collaborate with one another; delivering real-time data on every learner's progress and the most effective formats; and reducing corporate learning budgets.

Right Idea, Wrong User Experience

The lofty promise of MOOCs, however, has since run into a troubling reality: despite sky-high enrollment rates at some university-sponsored MOOCs, many students (which include working professionals) never get around to viewing a course and only a scant minority actually complete it. For instance, according to its own internal study, half of students who enrolled in a University of Pennsylvania MOOC never engaged in their course and, of those who did participate, only 4 percent completed the class. The results have been equally grim for other MOOC courses.

Like so many disruptive ideas, the underlying problem with MOOCs isn't the underlying idea, says Clay Shirky, a leading consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies and author of "Cognitive Surplus," which looks at how technology turns passive consumers into active collaborators. The problem is in execution. Shirky argues that developers spent too much time focusing on the product and not enough time thinking about its relevance to people's lives.

MOOC developers made a mistake in concentrating so heavily on course content and delivery methods, audio and video qualities, course rigor (or lack thereof) and grading methods, says instructional designer Debbie Morrison. “We should be looking at MOOCs from a different angle — who is taking the courses and why, the behaviors of the students, and then analyzing the results before making predictions that MOOCs will disrupt traditional higher education,” she says.

The New Syllabus

"We look back at our early work and realize it wasn't quite as good as it should have been," concedes Sebastian Thrun, the founder of MOOC provider Udacity, tells Fast Company. In response, Udacity and other leading MOOC providers like Coursera and edX are reincorporating more of the human element into their courses. This means adding human mentors and weekly in-person instruction, which are intended to help students stay on track.

While universities are scaling back their MOOC offerings, companies are finding a better fit with specialized training programs, according to NPR. Thrun says that Udacity will now emphasize employee job training classes for corporations, such as Google and Facebook. As examples, he cites courses that will focus on big data analytics and app development.

Bersin by Deloitte has been actively exploring MOOCs and potential impacts in the corporate learning market. Bersin sees a wide range of applications for companies looking to explore MOOCs, including employee onboarding, self-directed career development, channel and customer training, and more.

Will these steps help MOOCs realize their promise — inside and out of the workplace? Only time will tell. But remember: almost every revolution has its setbacks.

 

[Image via CanStock]