Ever since they first came to existence in 2012, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have made an enormous transformation. At first, these innovative courses were offered for free, with the expectation to connect hundreds of thousands of people with university-level courses all around the world. But, as completion rates never managed to rise beyond single digits, and as people with lower access to traditional education failed to sign up and actually take advantage of these resources, the major players in the space started to reevaluate their model.
For some time, there was a lot of experimentation, ranging from making courses more participative by including social features such as forums, chat rooms, dedicated tutors, and even group work into the mix; to making courses less self-driven, and sticking them to schedules and deadlines students were supposed to meet. In the end, these innovations vastly improved results, and made courses more effective. But not enough so as for MOOC providers to stop experimenting.
And methodology is not the only thing that changed. The evolution of methodology brought a radical mutation of the course providers’ business models. The free and super-low-cost model – on which student volume would make up for very low fares on thousands of different very specific courses –, shifted to the creation of more comprehensive programs offered at higher prices (yet, much lower than that charged by universities). This came from the realization that MOOCs had become a niche business. Most people signing up were professionals aiming at getting a new specific set of skills either to get a promotion or a new job, or to have the tools needed to enroll back into university. It wasn’t the masses taking the advantage of getting a free high-quality education, but rather people who had already been to college, who had a very clear goal in mind. A goal they were willing to work for, and to pay for.
With this in mind, the offer from course providers of the likes of Udacity, Coursera, and edX shifted to focus mostly on professional courses created to help students acquire the skills that are in higher demand in the labor market. This way, courses on coding, data analytics, online marketing, and other highly sought abilities started to spurt all over the MOOC space, many of them organized into three to six months programs easier to follow by potential students, and endorsed by major corporations which require talent in those areas.
But even as these better more-structured programs, and the inclusion of new collaborative tools, tutors, and other innovations have seemingly improved student engagement and completion rates, MOOCs are not yet able to effectively deliver the one thing most people are taking them for: jobs.
According to a Venture Beat report from June this year, out of the 10,000 who signed up and graduated from a Udacity nanodegree, 1,000 managed to get a job based on their new skills. According to the company, this number doesn’t actually portray its programs’ ability to create skilled workers saught by corporations, as many of its students already have jobs and are seeking only to perfect themselves. Yet, the fact that only 10% of course takers managed to land a job, speaks of lower rates of success than those promised by most course providers to their prospects. For this reason, some course providers have started to offer money-back guarantees to students not managing to get a job after taking the course. This, however, is far from ideal.
This, of course, doesn’t speak of the efficacy of MOOCs in educating competent professionals. It is very likely many of these online programs graduates have actually managed to acquire the necessary skills to effectively do the job they seek. However, most companies – even those who endorse these programs – are not yet taking these students seriously enough as to offer them interviews straight after graduation.
This may change over time, as course graduates become more prominent in the workforce and start showing they have good technical skills, but in the meantime, some universities and course providers have started to work on ways to make graduates more attractive for employers. Such is the case of the MIT.
The MIT Weeklong Entrepreneurship Bootcamp Experience
In 2015, Erdin Beshimov, an MIT lecturer, had an idea to boost course takers success opportunities: inviting them to a supplementary bootcamp after graduation. Taking the graduates of Entrepreneurship 101 course offered by the university on edX as a sample, he had the University send an invitation to everyone who had completed the course, inviting them over to a weeklong intensive bootcamp that would challenge them to start a company in just five days. Even with a price tag of $6,000 (plus travel expenses), the course got 500 applicants, 47 of whom went on to join the experience.
During the bootcamp, students were forced to go through a very intensive process that involved committing to the goal of starting up, continuous work on the project, team work, active learning, and exposure to potential employers and investors, who acted as judges at a final pitch and presentation. Many of the groups got offers, some as high as $500 thousand dollars in seed money from Verizon, and all participants got to network with other people in their field, and to acquire vital experience which helped them relate to the knowledge they acquired during the MOOC in a very different way.
The MIT has kept the Global Entrpreneurship Bootcamp going ever since, and has expanded the initiative to develop bootcamps for fields such as Food Innovation, and the Internet of Things, thus proving the efficacy of this learning model.
The reason why some potential employers are not taking MOOC takers seriously enough, may have to do with the fact that these courses are not as strong proving student commitment and hard work as traditional university courses (and other forms of education) does. But intensive experiences such as additional bootcamps, can supplement online education with a setting where students are forced to apply all they have learnt, and to do it in a way that forces them to face real life scenarios, collaborating with others, and ultimately showing a different kind of commitment; all before the eyes of the execs from the very companies which are looking for this kind of talent.
The MIT experience is just one among many possible ways to resolve this problem. And other course providers are also exploring new, creative ways to approach it, and have their students get the skills and “intensity” online education fails to provide, while taking advantage of the many benefits these courses offer for delivering knowledge and valuable skills. At the same time, by getting corporations, startups, and entrepreneurs more involved, they are doing a great deal to convince the market, that online courses can – and are – training valuable professionals who can fill the demand for talent in the many areas that companies are struggling to fill with graduates from traditional university courses.
Photo: Aurusdorus (Public Domain – CC0)