Published on 2014/05/19
Employer Perspectives and the Future of MOOCs
A North Carolina study shows companies across the board are looking to MOOCs for professional development and, when employers know what MOOCs are, they are likely to account for them in hiring decisions.

We know from recent surveys of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) users that MOOCs attract a highly educated population. Statistics from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, reveal that at least three-quarters of students who sign up for MOOCs hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. As MOOCs evolve, however, the role they can play in preparing more marginal students for the workforce and advancing the skills of those in low-paying jobs holds great promise. Diverse populations — including students in American community colleges or the United Kingdom’s further education sector, or youth in developing countries with limited access to postsecondary education — stand to benefit from occupational training that’s free and open.

Just how MOOCs might serve the educational needs of developing countries was the focus of a recent two-day conference at the University of Pennsylvania called “MOOCS4D: Potential at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Experts from around the world gathered to grapple with the major obstacles that prevent access to MOOCs. In particular, many mentioned limited online bandwidth as a significant barrier in viewing highly-produced MOOC videos. Other fundamental issues included the need for non-English language courses and simply getting the word out about the availability of MOOCs and what courses might be relevant to the population’s needs.

Whether in the United States or abroad, the success of MOOCs for workforce skill development will depend in large part on the receptivity of employers to hiring employees who have obtained some or all of their education online. In this early period of the MOOC movement, little evidence exists about employer knowledge about, or use of, MOOCs. This is why we at RTI International, in partnership with Duke University, undertook a study to investigate the issue. With support from a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded through the MOOC Research Initiative, we conducted an exploratory study of North Carolina employers to gauge their awareness of and perceptions about MOOCs, as well as their receptivity to using these courses as hiring and professional development tools. While our small sample of human resources staff at 103 organizations (acquired primarily through Duke University’s Career Services) is not representative, our results suggest employers are very receptive to the potential of MOOCs.

For example, though just 31 percent of respondents had heard of MOOCs (as of January 2014), once they understood what they were, a large majority recognized their potential value in helping them make hiring decisions (seeing them primarily as a sign of applicant motivation), recruiting (particularly for high-demand positions requiring specific technical skills, such as programmers and software developers) and in providing free professional development to advance current employees’ skills and capacities. Enthusiasm for MOOCs’ potential for professional development was particularly evident among respondents from technology-related organizations, all of whom had “used, considered using, or could see their company using” MOOCs for professional development purposes. The same was true for 87 percent of respondents in business-related companies. In subsequent interviews with a subset of 20 organizations, companies needing in-house training for staff with highly technical skills viewed MOOCs as a great resource. Other organizations saw MOOCs as an affordable way to provide management and more basic soft skills for lower-level employees.

It remains to be seen, however, whether a broader segment of employers are so positively inclined toward MOOCs, and whether those who do use MOOCs for hiring, recruiting or professional development are successful in capitalizing on their availability. Perhaps more fundamentally, it is yet to be determined whether MOOCs can help youth and adults in countries with limited access to traditional education to obtain the necessary skills to find employment that pays a living wage. Through our work with foundations and other agencies, we intend to continue to address questions about the potential of MOOCs for workforce development.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2014/05/19 at 9:43 am

It’s one thing for an employer to say that s/he would consider MOOCs, but another for him/her to actually do so. It seems more likely that other postsecondary education (e.g. a degree) would play a more important role in an employer’s decision.

Vera Matthews 2014/05/19 at 7:20 pm

It would be interesting to see a similar survey using other alternative credentials (badges, etc.) My guess is that employers are mainly concerned with whether potential employees have the skills/knowledge needed, not where they got them from. This is good news for the non-traditional student.

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