Why does L&D fail to get MOOCs? – Donald H Taylor

Regular readers of Donald H Taylor’s (Chair of The Learning & Performance Institute) posts will know he is currently running the 2017 L&D Global Sentiment Survey, where he asks L&D professionals a single question: what will be hot in L&D in the coming year? (Click to participate in the 2017 survey and to download the last report.)

Revisiting the results of the 2016, I’ve been thinking about an apparently strong disconnect between L&D professionals and reality revealed by one option on the survey: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

When I started the survey in 2014, MOOCs were the coming thing, ranking 4th on the final table of results. By the 2016 survey, MOOCs had dropped to 14th out of 16 options.

Does this mean that MOOCs are a flash in the pan, a busted technology that nobody is using?

Not at all. MOOCs are more popular than they have ever been. The numbers of courses available on MOOCs have risen over the past three years (from about 1,000 to about 4,000):


(For notes on the numbers used here, see the bottom of this article.)

The MOOC market doubled in 2015. More people signed up for a course in 12 months than they did in the first three years of the ‘modern’ MOOC movement, which started in late 2011, with the first Stanford MOOCs. According to data collected by Class Central, the total number of students who signed up for at least one course has crossed 35 million—up from an estimated 16-18 million last year.

And this growth is more diverse than ever. Up to 2015, Coursera accounted for more than half of all online students. By the end of 2015, however the world’s largest provider of online courses had – at 17 million students – just under 50% of the MOOC student base. It still managed to grow its users by 7 million over the year.

But L&D doesn’t think MOOCs are hot.

When an option drops down the table, in my experience, it usually means one of two things: either the option has pretty much become business-as-usual for L&D (see video, mobile, webinars) or it’s just a bit too complicated and L&D’s attention has moved elsewhere – I call this ‘shiny thing syndrome’.

MOOCs are a classic case of shiny thing syndrome.

This wouldn’t matter if this were the latest fad internal to L&D – a methodology or technology of interest to nobody else. But MOOCs are something people are actually using, and widely. In my conversations internationally with those running L&D departments, I hear very little about the use of MOOCs, while clearly the employees in those organisations are using them in growing numbers.

Sooner or later an L&D department is going to have to explain to an enthusiastic employee, manager or executive why it’s not making MOOCs available as part of the regular learning portfolio. A poor answer will lay L&D open to three dangerous challenges:

The department will be seen as irrelevant by the employees it seeks to serve.

The department will be seen as irrelevant by its employer.

It misses an opportunity to harness a popular, valuable, usually free resource.

All this leaves me bewildered and repeating the same question:

Why does L&D fail to get MOOCs?

Click to participate in the 2017 L&D Global Sentiment Survey and to download the most recent report

Notes on the graph: In 2014 and 2015 the option was “Open everything (badges, MOOCs…). In 2016, the option was “MOOCs”. The options ranked 4th of 12 in 2014, 9th of 15 in 2015 and 14th of 16 in 2016. I have normalised these rankings as if the scale in each year was of 16 options.

Disclosure: I have no financial interest in any organisation providing MOOCs or related services.

About the author – Donald H Taylor:

Donald Taylor is a veteran of the learning, skills and human capital industries, with experience at every level from delivery to chairman of the board.

A recognised commentator and organiser in the fields of workplace learning and learning technologies, Donald is passionately committed to helping develop the learning and development profession.

Chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute since 2010, his background ranges from training delivery to managing director and vice-president positions in software companies. Donald took his own internet-based training business from concept to trade sale in 2001 and has been a company director during several other acquisitions. Now based in London, he has lived and travelled extensively outside the UK and now travels regularly internationally to consult and speak about workplace learning.

Check out Donald’s blog

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