MOOCs to Assist Career Development

New innovations constantly impact working life and call for new skills & expertise. People should educate themselves during their careers, all the way to the retirement age. Indeed, lifelong learning is a buzzword often popping up in corporate values and motivational talks.

Reality is somewhat different. Neither school system nor professions really support lifelong learning. First you educate yourself, then you enter the working life. Period. If you are lucky, your boss might sponsor you some continuing education packages every now and then.

Could technology provide help here? For example MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Josh Coates of Instructure mentions MOOCs to currently be at the very top of the Gartner hype curve. People have put a lot of faith into MOOCs, no doubt also false expectations. Next couple of years will show whether MOOCs will survive the dip in the hype curve or end up in the innovation graveyard.

Why are MOOCs so popular just now? How did Coursera for example manage to attract its first million users faster than Facebook? After all, the first course loosely satisfying the criteria of a MOOC was organized already back in 1958 when the New York University decided to broadcast a popular course via television.

Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, explains the massive popularity with three technology trends: social media, video content and cloud services are all now mainstream and together they form the basic building blocks of MOOCs. It is now possible to build sustainable education on top of them.

Agarwal also envisions the future American university studies as follows: from the normal four years spent in the university the first one could be done already when in high school, then two years at the campus and finally the last year while working, in several batches.

The idea is fascinating. Thinking back to my own high school time back in the early 90s I recall my assumption of higher education being something intriguing and mystical even. However, in fact it was something I really knew nothing about. Had I had access to MOOCs back then, I could’ve gone shopping for various courses. This would’ve given me a lot better understanding of different subjects, and even some credits to kick start my campus life.

Furthermore, in the first years of my career life after finishing the university studies I could’ve well returned to a virtual classroom, had there been such available. I could’ve picked studies providing me with information and skills needed in my then ongoing projects. Of course I could’ve taken studies for example at the Open University. The problem was that everything available included face-to-face lectures. Not so easy to attend while working.

Attending a physical classroom is one thing, but even more important is the relationship to the official curricula and degrees. If universities would truly recognize MOOCs and give credits on a large scale for passing these virtual courses, then they had the chance of making a bigger difference. MOOCs shouldn’t be only extra, but an integral part of university studies.

In the US some universities have started to open their eyes and smell the coffee. In early 2013, five of Coursera’s courses were accepted by many American universities and colleges. This amounts up to around two thousand institutions in total. Now all their students have the chance to earn credits from those Coursera courses.

Coursera originates from Stanford and edX from MIT & Harvard. Together with Udacity—also from Stanford—they form the three biggest players in the MOOC business. It is only natural that MOOCs stem from the most famous and praised institutions, because their teaching is probably the best one can expect.

Every now and then politicians talk about the need to shorten the time spent in universities. My opinion is the exact opposite: we should have people spend longer time studying, preferably their whole adult lives. This does not mean that they shouldn’t work at the same time. On the contrary, studying should take place with ease while working. And this is where MOOCs kick in.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Finnish in Suomi elää älystä blog.

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