Open Menu Close Menu

Research

MOOCs Could Be Effective for Employee Upskilling

businessman working on laptop

A recent research project examined the use of massive open online courses as a way of addressing the skills gap and upskilling employees. While the research focused on Australia, the findings have broader relevance. According to a team of researchers from Canadian University Dubai, Lancaster University and the University of Adelaide, a review of literature found that MOOCs can provide flexible learning, address rapidly changing skills needs and deliver credentials.

The project began with a lone question: How are MOOCs being used to reduce the skills gap? To compile the literature for review, the researchers sought content published in English between 2013 and 2017 and using terms such as "MOOCs and skills," "MOOCs and skills in Australia" and "Massive Open Online Courses for professional development." An initial compilation of 219 articles, research reports and book chapters was winnowed to 19.

Three big themes emerged:

First, training and upskilling require flexibility, a characteristic of MOOCs, which are "travel-free," address training in "chunks" and are quicker than traditional methods of instruction. MOOCs have already been picked up in certain professions — accounting, social work and education — to provide professional development for staff members, the authors noted. And the flexible delivery provided by MOOCs allows employers to deliver updated content that keeps pace with changes in their industries. Another benefit to MOOC training is the caliber of people delivering the content. "It seems clear from their popularity that a major attraction for participants is flexible online access to 'experts' in the field," the report stated.

Second, MOOCs help people "learn what they need to know right now," a quality that's well suited to the 21st century's "fast-changing workforce." According to research by an Australian government productivity commission referenced in the report, online education "is well suited to the incremental acquisition of skills over a person's career, which is likely to be the key to ensuring job security as the nature of jobs and occupations evolve." Likewise, as professional standards change, MOOCs can be used to keep staff up-to-speed with new competencies and address high turnover and staff shortages where specialized training is needed in a hurry.

Finally, MOOCs can produce credentials. However, the report pointed out, here's an area of difference between the use of MOOCs in Australia and the United States: While U.S. universities have "embraced" MOOC qualifications for credit, Australian schools haven't. No educational council has formally accredited MOOCs for credit — leaving employers in the dark regarding their worth. As the authors wrote, "MOOCs promote an education model that is cutting-edge, digitized, open, flipped and flexible," all of which appeal to 21st-century students. At the same time, they "entrepreneurialise higher education," enabling students to "pay for their credential but at a much lower cost than a university degree."

Last year, a position paper by a government-appointed review panel argued for MOOC inclusion in the Australian Qualifications Framework, which would go far, the report added, in addressing a major concern: how to give credit for "informal and competency-based learning" in a way that resonates with employers' expectations.

As a survey among human resources managers by the same researchers found, "responses indicated that the lack of 'accreditation' or 'academic legitimacy' would be a barrier to making hiring or promotion decisions." At the same time, the respondents said they'd view MOOC-based training when making hiring or promotion decisions "positively." Apparently, as the report put it, context matters.

The project team advocated for more research to better understand how effective MOOCs can be in plugging the skills gap, through surveys and interviews with HR people and by examining the employee perspective too.

The paper is openly available on the Cogent Education journal website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

comments powered by Disqus