In a recent study conducted among almost 1,500 working professionals in the United States of America, it was revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents relied on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) for ongoing learning and development for career purposes. We have seen many reports in the Indian media as well, about the extensive and growing application of MOOC in companies, often through direct encouragement from management. Surely, when we scan the field of learning and development in corporate environment today, it is unlikely that our landscape would not involve Coursera, Edx, Udacity, Udemy and the likes. Apart from other well-known global platforms, initiatives from Indian institutions, e.g. Nptel, iitbombayx, IIMBx, Swayam, are opening up multiple opportunities for ongoing learning and attracting a large number of corporate learners.
In the upcoming years, increased application of MOOC in diverse forms and variations appear certain, with remarkable advancements in technology as well as projected growth in potential users. New players are joining the market in significant numbers with their offerings. MOOC undoubtedly offers excellent value for a willing learner in terms of range, choice, quality, cost effectiveness (mostly free), flexibility of timings, access, and ease of use. So, it is probably quite rational to ask ourselves now: Can MOOC completely replace traditional training in the near future? Assuming that really happens, is that positive news for individuals, organizations, and the economy?
Before we debate that, let us dig a little deeper and try to highlight some points of concern or caution. The primary and arguably most crucial questions will be: if MOOC, in spite of all its technological excellence, can match the real-time, direct, “immediate urgency” of a classroom or a live training session? Can it live up to a student’s expectations on learning through effective interactions, discussions, and Q&A, mostly driven by a competent instructor but also enhanced by an able peer group? Does the impersonal nature of online learning platforms meet learning needs and expectations of all users?
We are aware that many platforms are now equipped with speedy solutions to students’ concerns. However, they still have quite a lot of catching up to do, compared to traditional learning environments. Time lag involved in answering questions and resolving doubts can dampen the learning experience to a significant extent.
Our next concern is linked to content. Sceptics complain about most online courses being “over-simplified” or “diluted” to some extent, to make them more sought-after. That is purportedly a compromise we need to make for all advantages we avail. Also, as intake and study of content is mostly learner-driven, there is a chance that sometimes learning can get affected due to overload or underload. Even users sometimes expressed their disappointment about “lack of rigor” involved in the process of course completion or certification, compared with a traditional learning method. This sure can be a matter of concern as it directly points to the core of learning effectiveness.
So, there are perception issues (about the quality of a course) that prevail – mostly when courses under consideration are technical. A learner’s enrolment in an online course - exclusively for self-development - is acceptable and even welcomed by companies. But naturally, companies have good reasons to be more selective about online certifications, when it comes to career progression and reward management. When the credibility of a qualification is put under a question mark, it is definitely a serious matter!
Another important issue revolves around performance review and feedback linked to learning through MOOC. Many users expressed their dissatisfaction on evaluations and assessments they receive on their work. This is perhaps an underlying shortcoming of an online course. Lack of in-depth review and constructive feedback surely doesn’t lead to effective learning.
Flexibility, an integral part of MOOC, also comes with a rider. It is yet to be proven with hard facts and figures, but the common opinion is: drop-out rates on online courses are rather high compared to traditional ones. We can probably trace this rather low rate of completion back to the low entry barrier and less regulated structure that an online course offers. The easy access and inherent need for self-driven effort often leads to lack of motivation and deficient application.
Without denying the utility of mass-marketing education and learning through technology, some academics lament the fact that education has been reduced to just another product, with the advent of MOOC. This probably goes way deeper than just another collective opinion and questions the very fundamental tenets of learning altogether. Critics to this perspective will probably point out that traditional (“offline”) learning methods are not perfect either! There is absolutely no reason to reject that perspective. However, it is probably safe to speculate that organizations that truly understand and value effective learning and employee development will probably be cautious and careful about using MOOC as a perfect substitute for learning through traditional methods.
*Views expressed here are expressed by Professor Diganta Chakrabarti and Professor Smita Chaudhry who are members of the faculty at FLAME University.