The Hidden Value of MOOCs as Intellectual Gold Mines

We are walking through an intellectual gold mine and most have not even realized it. Even as the number of MOOC participants continue to grow around the world, much of the initial media buzz with MOOCs has settled. Early rhetoric about MOOCs replacing the traditional University have largely subsided, bringing us back to the more important questions.

  • How can MOOCs increase access and opportunity?
  • Where do they fit into the larger and diverse selection of educational opportunities?
  • What affordances do MOOCs add to the broader educational ecosystem?

That last question is, I contend, is the most important one to explore, and one that will open our eyes to the hidden value of MOOCs. Koller, President and Founder of Coursera, frequently explains that Coursera does not exist to replace the traditional higher education experience. Those spontaneous and sometimes serendipitous moments in a traditional face-to-face class remain as valuable as ever. Coursera doesn’t seek to diminish or replicate that. It does, however, exist to expand access and opportunity to valuable (as deemed by the participants) learning experiences for an audience that will likely never step foot (or have to opportunity to) on a campus like Stanford University. It doesn’t solve problems of equity, access and opportunity. It does offer to help with such problems, but even when failing to do so, that doesn’t mean that MOOCs lack value. People sometimes focus on the limitations of MOOCs and how they are not equivalent to other forms of teaching and learning, but MOOCs do give more access to those who have nothing, and they clearly offer value, as evidence by the massive enrollments. It is hard to deny the significance of something that garners registrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Coursera doesn’t replace the value or experience of a traditional undergraduate education. However, how many students sitting in Stanford and many other University courses have the self-direction, curiosity, will-power and follow through to identify a MOOC of interest, sign up for it, commit to using it for a robust learning experience, and walk away from the course having gained something of value? In other words, could it be that being a MOOC participant and completer is a sign of certain traits and abilities in a person, traits that are highly desirable in life and work? Studies of MOOC participants have shown that they largely consist of people who already have at least a bachelor’s degree, although there are growing efforts to draw the interest of more underserved populations.

Reaching underserved populations is a commendable aspiration, but let’s not overlook what we have identified. MOOC participant are largely people who elect to learn something on their own time, most often inspired by personal and professional goals. This is a population of people who demonstrate high levels of curiosity, a love of learning, and ownership for their growth and development.

These are engaged people. In one report, they found that 61% of MOOC participants took a MOOC to help them do their jobs better or to get a new job. These are not people who are just clocking their hours at work, living for the weekends. For one reason or another, they want to get better at what they do or they are committed to becoming competent and confident at something new.

As such, perhaps we need to start looking at MOOCs differently. If you had a group of hundreds of thousands of engaged people with curiosity and a love of learning, what might you do?

  • This is a great place for job postings, especially for employers who care about having engaged, curious self-starters.
  • It is certainly a prime place for advertisements to populations with an intellectual, self-directed bent; although many MOOC providers have opted not to go the route of paid advertisements.
  • It is an excellent place to draw people into a larger ecosystem of educational offerings ranging from coaching services and webinars to conferences, degree programs, workshops, and even subscription to newsletters.
  • It is a prime spot to share news and information that you want to spread in the social world.
  • It is a promising community to find people who value knowledge and understanding.
  • This is also a great place to stage competitions and gateways that can lead to new jobs and opportunities for committed and qualified people. Imagine a company that is expanding and plans to have 50 openings that need motivated and qualified people. Why not build a competition or course in a MOOC platform where completers are guaranteed at least an interview? This is a largely new and untapped space for identifying top talent (although the Udemy pivot partly gets at this).

I am not just talking about the marketing and financial benefits. I’m looking at this in terms of having an online space/community that is dense with engaged, lifelong learners. We are looking at an intellectual gold mine. If you care about talent management, then  MOOCs might not fix massive problems of inequity, access and opportunity at the moment; but they are providing a way to identify a population of people who are good at leveraging the power of the connected world for lifelong learning. Perhaps we’ve been so focused on the value of the MOOCs themselves that we’ve largely missed the true value, the people participating in the MOOCs.