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Corporate training and development — a $150 billion industry — can be expensive, so when organizations realized that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), originally intended for higher education, could be applied to the corporate world, HR folks were jumping for joy. That is, until the missing link in MOOCs, collaboration, was identified. Here, Elliott Masie, CEO and founder of international thinktank The Masie Center, argues that corporate MOOCs need to undergo a transformation to become more collaborative.  

How are companies currently using MOOCs for workplace learning?

When we look at MOOCs, there are three ways in which they’re done. The first, simplest way is that organizations pay for and support their employees taking external MOOCs provided by, say, Stanford or Udacity. The second model that a number of organizations including Yahoo are adopting is using subject matter experts from within the company to lead MOOCs, whether they are an instructor or the head of a MOOC. The third, more complicated area is organizations producing their own MOOCs.

How do MOOCs in the workplace differ from those for higher education?

What gets confusing, challenging and where we think there’s a lot of work to be done in the corporate world is what the C stands for. In the higher ed area, they wanted the C to be “course,” and there was a big focus on equivalency, which aims to figure out how individuals can call a MOOC the equivalent of a 3-credit course. In the corporate world, there’s a lot less interest in that. What they are interested in is the piece that’s not talked about enough in the higher ed world: collaboration. Collaboration requires doing a task with another individual, so that one individual teaches another.

Explain how companies are addressing this missing collaborative element.

A large financial corporation that I recently spoke with is looking at MOOCs as massive open online collaboration, so the learners don’t have to turn back to the instructor to answer their questions or even to certify their success. It needs to involve more than posting a bulletin board comment on Jive, because we know the attrition rate for that kind of collaboration is probably over 90 percent. There’s a lot of effort to figure out how to get the learners to collaborate, and that’s the sweet spot.

The other sweet spot that some groups like Yahoo are looking at is the way we fund MOOCs — maybe we embed advertising as a cost offset. There are a lot of MOOCs that aren’t going to be MOOCs as we know them with a beginning, middle and end, and a credit equivalency, but it will become a subscription model. People need to be in environments where collaboration can be mediated and the MOOC has enough data looping that people can figure out what’s working and what isn’t working in the process.

What needs to be improved for MOOCs to be successful in the workplace?

A common mistake is the expectation that if I create some content, people are going to participate because there’s no cost or travel required. The reality is that they’ll come, but they won’t stay. They’ll stay if there’s a rigor of experience in that process, and that’s what’s missing in corporate MOOCs. MOOCs aren’t designed around an intensity of experience for the learner. Part of that is how we display dynamic content and how we build MOOCs, not from classes at a distance, but experiences at a distance.

Companies need an intensity of design, making it enjoyable but challenging. While the technology often precedes the design elements, the art form is equally as important. When learners take MOOCs that put them to sleep, then the MOOC itself gets a negative brand. Many corporations are using the MOOC model, but they’re not using the word MOOC. The MOOC is a moment of excitement, but now we have to figure out the design piece of that.