Over the past two decades, the great Internet wave that swept through industry and revolutionized everything in its wake—including manufacturing, product development, supply-chain management, marketing, financial transactions, and customer service—likewise transformed on-the-job training. Companies eager to cut costs saw the overwhelming economic advantage of online instruction over the conventional classroom, and so they shuttered lavish country-club-style training parks and canceled employee travel to professional development courses in exotic locales. These days, most workers tend to receive their training at their desks, the better to maintain productivity.
Web instruction has also helped companies expand internationally because they can easily circulate self-learning modules to a geographically dispersed labor force at relatively low cost. As Australian scholar Paul Nicholson observed, “E-learning in business and training [is] driven by notions of improved productivity and cost reduction, especially in an increasingly globalized business environment.”
Over the past decade, employee enrollment in online programs has grown 20 times faster than has student enrollment at traditional colleges and universities. By 2020, 60 percent of workers receiving tuition reimbursement will be enrolled in online programs, according to EdAssist, a corporate tuition-assistance consulting firm.
Yet despite the corporate romance with online training for employees, companies have had a more troubled relationship with the virtual education offered by colleges and universities. When digital university programs first became available in the mid-1990s, many companies simply ignored them, refusing to provide tuition assistance to employees who enrolled in digital degree programs. Later, when it became apparent that some of the nation’s most selective schools actually offered high-quality online master’s degrees, especially in fields that paralleled industry needs, businesses grew more accepting.
To be sure, not every program offered a high-quality education, and a number of companies unwittingly allowed their employees to enroll in for-profit online schools that turned out to be scams. “For a time, companies were not as serious about vetting universities as they are today,” says Allan Weisberg, former chief learning officer at Johnson & Johnson. “When we finally looked into some for-profits, we discovered they were scams, and turned them down.”
A number of Fortune 500 companies responded by setting stricter rules on their tuition-reimbursement programs to prevent unsuspecting employees from throwing away money—the company’s as well as their own—on discredited programs at for-profits and other substandard schools. Other companies sensibly steered their workers toward approved universities, which must be ABET-accredited, perform serious research that parallels the firm’s own research interests, and employ significant numbers of the school’s own alumni. “Today, wise companies invest their tuition dollars in established non-profit and public schools,” says Weisberg. “With stricter polices, companies want to make sure that tuition assistance is valuable to all parties—employees, corporations, and universities.”
Ideally, online training should give personnel the chance to acquire new and valuable skills, perhaps in emerging fields like cyber security or data science. Such training helps the company, of course, and it also gives workers an edge in a tricky economy. Earning a degree online is also a huge convenience for workers, whose days are already filled as it is. A mid-career engineer with job, family, and travel responsibilities can more easily study online at his or her own pace—at 10 at night after the kids are in bed—than commute to campus.
Given that the switch to online job training was largely a cost-cutting move, it’s only natural that when MOOCs—massive open online courses—came on the scene in 2011, companies were curious. Because they’re designed to reach hundreds or thousands of students at once, MOOCs benefit from economies of scale that smaller online programs don’t share.
Google and Instagram are experimenting with MOOC provider Coursera’s “Specializations,” which are groups of related courses in key areas of interest to industry. The fee for a Coursera Specialization runs from $150 to $500 for anywhere from three to ten courses, plus a capstone project. The most popular offerings include data science (from Johns Hopkins University), Python (from the University of Michigan), and machine learning (from the University of Washington). Compared to the thousands of dollars for a more conventional training program, MOOCs are a relative bargain. And if a company’s aim is for workers to quickly acquire in-demand skills, rather than earning an accredited degree that may take a year or more to complete, a set of focused MOOCs may be the way to go. This skills-centered approach, known in education circles as competency-based education, is a growing trend at U.S. schools.
But before companies jump on the MOOC bandwagon, they might consider whether their ideal employee is someone with up-to-date skills in a narrow specialty, or a truly thoughtful professional who is prepared to go beyond his or her defined tasks and can adapt flexibly to new conditions and new markets. Ultimately, industry must decide who will fill the labor pipeline: an army of MOOC-trained workers or deeply talented personnel who’ve earned richly complex degrees from the nation’s best universities.
About the Author:
Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on digital education, Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, was recently published by Routledge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the last in a series on MOOCs and online learning.