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The marketing spiel exudes confidence: “Get the job you want in 2016!” But the connection between massive open online courses (Moocs) and future employment is not so clear.
Over the past five years, Moocs have become an educational ecosystem offering a diverse array of programmes. But while the attraction for employees is clear — new skills taught by leading universities and offering official certificates — it is less obvious that employers have fully woken up to the possibilities of Moocs.
Mooc providers themselves are keen to show how former students went on to get their dream jobs. Such stories are a commonplace sales pitch on many Mooc platforms.
The opinion of employers is harder to gauge. None of the main employers’ groups in the UK contacted by the FT were keeping data on the role of online courses in recruitment.
“Moocs have not penetrated every part of the business world,” says Perry Timms, adviser on social media and engagement to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the UK professional organisation. “There are still times when I say ‘Moocs’ to people and they say, ‘what?’”
But business recognition of online learning in general and Moocs in particular is improving, Mr Timms adds. “It is an exciting area — it needs more focus, but Moocs are quietly humming along. They have not been a massive revolution but they are becoming another aspect of what businesses look for.”
That is true of some sectors in particular, such as data analysis, marketing and IT. Almost every Mooc platform has a strong offering in those areas, with some dedicated to them almost exclusively. Of the top 10 most popular courses of 2015 on Coursera, the largest commercial Mooc platform, three were about programming, two were about data science and another was on machine learning.
Two more were more broadly business-focused — financial accounting and negotiation — while the other two came under the general heading of self-improvement: learning how to learn (the year’s top course), and Tibetan Buddhist meditation.
Perhaps therein lies the problem business has with Moocs. While all of the above were offered by top US universities, the Mooc universe is bewilderingly diverse. For an employer to take notice, the Mooc portfolio on your CV has to be extremely focused.
“Businesses recognise that Moocs are an accessible way to a high-quality education [but] choosing the right provider is essential if courses are to meet their objectives and hopes of the participants,” says the Confederation of British Industry employers’ group.
There are signs that Moocs are gaining a toehold within business, however. For example, in the UK Marks and Spencer has developed a course — called Innovation: the Key to Business Success — in partnership with the University of Leeds and hosted on the FutureLearn platform. More than 26,000 people in 70 countries have taken it so far.
HEC Paris, the management school, and Axa Investment Managers will launch a Mooc in April teaching asset management on the Coursera platform.
Governments have taken them up, too, both to train the general population and their own employees.
Saudi Arabia’s labour ministry has set up a Mooc portal with edX to educate women and young people, while civil servants in the Scottish government enrolled on a course entitled “Transforming Business, Society and Self with U.Lab”, also on edX, before extending it to the general population.
As a general rule, Moocs appear to be most effective in the jobs market when they are targeted at narrow objectives.
This is probably because, as research has shown, most people who enrol on Moocs are already employed full time, are well-educated residents of developed countries and tend to use courses specifically to improve their careers.
But as a recent survey of 52,000 Mooc users found, those in developing countries are more likely to report tangible benefits — such as a new job or starting a new business.
The researchers — from Coursera, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington — found that people already in high-skilled jobs were likely to benefit most from “up-skilling” to improve themselves in their current position, labelled an “intangible benefit”, whereas those without high-skilled jobs were more likely to benefit from “re-skilling to transition to a new job”, a more tangible effect.