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Online Learning Gets Massive, Open

MOOCs haven’t yet hit the mainstream, but they could herald a shift in how employees acquire new skills.

August 13, 2013
Recruiting company Aquent is using a new twist on online learning to help its clients hire next-generation Web developers.
 
Faced with job requests from companies that it could not fill, the Boston-based specialized recruiter for ad agencies in 2012 launched a massive open online course, or MOOC, on skills related to HTML5, the latest version of the markup language that defines how Internet content gets structured. Ad agencies need Web developers well-versed in mobile technologies such as HTML5, yet many code writers seem to lack the necessary skills to compete for available jobs, said Alison Farmer, Aquent’s vice president of learning and development.
 
“Even though unemployment was high, companies were telling us that most candidates weren’t qualified,” Farmer said. “We wondered: ‘How do we take candidates that may have been competitive a year ago and help them acquire emerging skills?’”
 
Use of MOOC formats has been confined to academia, although Aquent’s businesslike approach could signal a shift in how corporate training is delivered. MOOC providers — Coursera, EdX and Udacity, all of which are start-ups — are locking up agreements for learning content with prestigious academic universities, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford. Even well-established software company Blackboard Inc. recently announced it was getting in on the MOOC action, adding an optional MOOC platform to its Blackboard Learn product. 
 
Precise data on how many corporations are exploiting the MOOC format, and why they’re doing it, is elusive, but the number is believed to be small. Companies have been slow to adopt MOOCs due to concerns about development costs, privacy and security, said Chris Davia, the chief technology officer at ConnectEDU, a Boston company that develops Web-based tools for college and career planning.
 
Another drawback: the MOOC format is so new that companies lack a way to connect the dots between what employees learn and remaining skills gaps. Since the courses are offered free of charge, attendance and participation rates are not formally tracked. The lack of such quantitative data makes it difficult to evaluate if people are actually learning — and more important, practicing — what they have learned. 
 
“Without the ability to securely send (information about) employee progress back to the enterprise, companies aren’t likely to incorporate MOOCs into their training and development strategies in the short term,” Davia said.
 
On the other hand, Davia said it’s only a matter of time before the cost of deploying a MOOC platform is on par with learning management systems. “The market for (corporate) MOOCs will start to mature when large multinational companies realize they can use it to develop their talent pipeline,” from identifying new recruits to helping employees master competencies required for job proficiency, Davia said. 
 
Here’s how a MOOC typically works: hundreds or even thousands of students enroll in self-paced digital courses of study, which typically include virtual “lectures,” completing online graded exercises and extensive participation in collaborative online forums.
 
Aquent includes webinars, online forums and project assignments in its MOOC focused on HTML5. The projects are especially important since they enable aspiring Web designers to build a portfolio of digital creative work, Farmer said.
 
About 10,000 people enrolled to take Aquent’s free training course on HTML5, with 180 of those who completed the training receiving job placement with digital ad agencies, Farmer said. Aquent provided the course content and instructor.
 
The next phase of the project is Aquent Gymnasium, which launched in July. It essentially functions as a hybrid LMS-corporate university format, except without tracking metrics. It offers free courses geared to designers, front-end developers and marketing professionals. 
 
Farmer said the courses in Gymnasium will be developed based on interviews, focus groups and surveys of corporate clients. The aim is to bridge the skills gap encountered by companies in the creative fields. 
 
The first course in Gymnasium, “Coding for Designers,” teaches students how to transfer graphic design to the Web and focuses on the basics of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Flash and other programming languages.
 
People who complete the MOOC curricula receive a certificate of completion from Aquent, which serves as validation to employers, Farmer said. 
 
Advertising agency Fish Marketing, based in Portland, Ore., is among the early beneficiaries of Aquent’s MOOC. Finding HTML5 Web developers is crucial to serving its customers, said John Moore, Fish’s interactive director.
 
“Web building accounts for about 50 percent of our revenue. We use HTML5 because it enables our clients to get a website that’s going to last a long time,” said Moore, who has hired Web developers that completed Aquent’s inaugural MOOC course.
 
Moore said MOOC-credentialed candidates have initiative — since attendance is voluntary — and can showcase a solid portfolio of completed projects to demonstrate their applied skills. “I typically give extra credit to a candidate who’s actively sharpening his acquired skill set through online training, especially for writing software code. Online training is one of the few places where you can further your coding skills.”
 
Farmer said Aquent is using its massive open online courses to “manufacture the workforce our clients need.” The company also has big plans for its newly christened Gymnasium platform. The early goal is to serve at least one course a year for the first year or two, with hopes to eventually add courses over time. “We would love to get to the point where we can do one new course a month,” Farmer said.
 
Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.