Are your employers MOOC-ing?

We’ve all been there - sitting at a conference or in a seminar, hearing information presented that you probably know better than the instructor teaching it. What if you (or your employer) could design professional training that matched courses with your skill level and current knowledge - tackle topics you don't know about and skip all the classes on the information you already know?

That is one of the benefits that many companies, such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bank of America, are seeing in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are free or low-cost classes, often developed in partnership with a university, business, or subject matter expert, and offered exclusively online. The topics covered are broad - ranging from astronomy and physics to basic QuickBooks and programming for beginners. Once heralded as the technology that would transform higher education, MOOCs are finding more success supporting the training needs of businesses, large and small.

As technology and the economy continues to change rapidly, the skills a given employee needs to be successful may not have even existed or been necessary 5 or 10 years ago - think social media marketing, e-commerce, and some programming skills. Given this rapid change, creating avenues for continuous training and skill upgrades is imperative to the operation of a successful business. However, based on a recent report by the American Society for Training & Development, the annual cost of training has reached nearly $1,200 per employee while also requiring employees to spend days or even a week away from the office. As a result, companies are seeking lower cost and more efficient ways to provide their employees with the training they need, some turning to MOOCs to fill that role. 

MOOCs are an attractive alternative to more expensive course, conference, or seminars and can be completed from the employee's office. Courses can be taken to train a new employee or upgrade the skills of current employees. Some companies encourage workers to take certain MOOCs before their first day so they can start mastering some basic skills early on.

A great example of “MOOCs” in action is in the businesses the tourism sector in Somerset County, Maine. Home to the Kennebec River and some of the best whitewater rafting in the U.S., travel and tourism is a major driver of this rural region’s economy ( Somerset County is actively working to build a world-class experience for visitors, which includes developing an exceptional hospitality workforce. As part of the implementation strategy, many local businesses have all of their staff go through a free online hospitality-training course offered by the University of Maine called Welcome ME Quality Service Training (

In addition to being used as a training tool, some companies simply offer to pay for MOOCs as an employee retention tool. The employee can take a course in any field, regardless of its relation to their current position to pursue their own personal interests, appealing to some worker's desire for a greater work/life balance.

In addition to skills training for workers, some organizations have also begun using MOOCs as a way to mass produce basic training for entrepreneurs. The skills needed to be an artisan, baker, or other small business owner, and those needed to successfully run a business can be vastly different - just ask any entrepreneur. However, the ability to train aspiring entrepreneurs and current small business owners is constrained by time, money, and proximity to training resources. To overcome these challenges, Germanna Community College, based in Fredericksburg, VA, developed courses in business strategy and development, marketing, and customer discovery that can be taken by any entrepreneur online for free as part of the SkillUpVA initiative.

Innovation around the MOOC platform is ongoing and the full range of applications of MOOCs to economic development continues to go largely untapped. As training for workers and entrepreneurs continues to be an important part of development strategies, communities can experiment with MOOCs to solve these issues and uncover new for the online courses.

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