Workforce.com

Credentialing, Competency, and MOOCs

February 11, 2013

In academia, Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] are now either the latest college fad, like streaking, or a seismic change akin to eliminating parietals and creating mixed male female dorms. MOOCs are online courses taught by first-rate lecturers who deliver via the desktop. Students can be dispersed around the world and participate in online live and "bulletin board" chat sessions. While most of these courses are offered for free and will not count for university credit, the idea is that eventually fees will be charged and credit given. The premise is that much of our traditional classroom learning can be replaced by online courses taught by first rate lecturers using increasingly more dynamic technology. Proposed benefits are lower costs, better instruction and greater accessibility.

It is easy to look at academia and conclude that workplaces should move to adapting this same new learning technology. After all, if the Ivies and other prestigious universities see MOOCs as a critical educational tool, if not a needed source of additional revenue and prestige, then how long will it be until we move to the same standard for our time starved, financially strapped and increasingly global workplaces? To an extent, this has already happened with online classes consisting of modules accompanied by short quizzes. Already, millions of hours of training segments are delivered annually on workplace topics such as harassment, code of conduct, ethics and discrimination.

But school and work are not the same. Overall, there are different learning purposes when we compare the undergraduate experience with workplace education. As college students, many of us went to class, wrote required papers and crammed for tests. We wanted grades and recommendations for graduate school or our first jobs. If we got the right mark, we met our objective and moved forward. We had a credential and that is what mattered. If the truth be told, many of us forgot what we learned after turning in our last assignment or exam. While I am far removed from my college years, I am guessing that's still true for many, if not most, students.

At work, there is a different educational purpose. If we are being required to go through a course or training where we need to master and retain knowledge and skills, a one-time grade is not enough. It is a credential but not evidence of ongoing competency. We have to apply what we have studied in unexpected situations for it to have any value. Ultimately, the only grade that matters is how we handle a safety, ethical, compliance, customer or manufacturing challenge. That takes knowledge, judgment, reinforcement, leadership, role modeling and accountability. We need to consider very carefully whether such skills and reinforcement can be obtained and sustained through one time, largely one way, learning experiences no matter how compelling.

In the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime information revolution challenging the value of traditional learning approaches, it's easy to be blinded by the lure of technology. In many organizations, the threshold questions are, "What are our technical resources and limits?" and, "How do we use new technologies most effectively?"

Instead, we should choose learning content and delivery systems after answering questions along the following lines: Why is learning being delivered? And, What is the most effective way to reach learners?

  • What is it that we are trying to teach: is it knowledge which is most important, or are we trying to integrate knowledge with on the job application?
  • Do we have a "hungry audience" or one which is not especially interested in our subject matter and possibly antagonistic to key concepts?
  • How important is it that what is taught is applied and sustained beyond initial delivery for ongoing impact?
  • No matter what delivery method we use, what will be our strategy for keeping our learning alive and vibrant?

Our lives will be enriched by technology with advances in learning and communication beyond the limited horizon of our vision. As we move forward, though, we need to take measured, careful steps and keep in mind that learning at work needs to produce ongoing results … not high scores for our permanent record cards.