Could A MOOC Ease Your Talent Problems?

Boston's EdX partnership with MIT should spur CIOs to consider creating their own massive open online courses to fill skills gaps.

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BostonX exists right now only on whiteboards and hard drives and other tools of modern planning, but it represents a structural shift in the way people might learn. Corporate executives struggling to find employees with the right skills, take note: It might be time to start planning your own massive open online course (MOOC).

BostonX is a collaboration between the City of Boston and EdX, the Harvard/MIT MOOC platform. It aims to bring EdX courses to classrooms in Boston high schools, libraries and community centers.

Which raises the question: If EdX can come to the city, why not the company? Especially with McKinsey predicting that by 2020, a mere seven years off, the global economy will face a skills gap between available jobs and workers that will mean 85 million medium- and high-skill jobs going unfilled.

[ MOOCs could be poised to take off. Read Is 2013 Year Of The MOOC? ]

"The job market is not static," said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX. He questions why the education model is set up so people are done with school by 22 or 23. "You're educated once and use the knowledge for 70 years. That's crazy!" he said.

Agarwal thinks MOOCs present an approach that will help drive continuous learning for workers. "I see real impetus for the whole movement of free training of people in areas where jobs are," he said. He cites technology skills and life sciences training as two areas that could see big demand.

Executive education is already something in high demand. "Skills in this day and age have a very short shelf life," noted Sanjay E. Sarma, director of digital learning and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. As director of digital learning, Sarma is in charge of building courses that appear on EdX. He said that companies already ask MIT's executive education program to develop custom content for them.

If it seems like a stretch for companies, or trade groups, to decide to create their own custom content, it's already happening. For one, the resources needed tend to be already in place at companies. For another, EdX is an open-source platform. Anybody can use it to build a course.

One company already has. 10gen, which provides commercial services for MongoDB, an open-source database tool, launched two courses of its own last year using EdX's platform. 10gen hosted an instance of EdX's software on Amazon Web Services as the host; students log in to it on the 10gen site, and 10gen does all the promotional work for it.

The hard part was developing the courses, said Andrew Erlichson, 10gen's VP of education. Although the company already teaches conventional courses, those are run over two days, accommodating between eight and 15 students. Its online classes, dubbed m101 (MongoDB for developers) and m102 (MongoDB for database administrators), were built as seven-week courses with about two hours of content per week. Video segments were followed by built-in quizzes, and there were weekly homework assignments and a final exam. Automatic grading had to be created.

Video of the classes was shot in "Khan style," an overhead camera looking down at a tablet, after the style used in Khan Academy videos. "We spent 17 hours editing every single hour of content we created," Erlichson said. "I was pulling all-nighters like I hadn't done since college."

The total cost to develop the classes was about $250,000. The classes are being run again, and Erlichson said they now take less than five hours of his time a week. 10gen expects 50,000 students to take the classes in the first year, meaning it has invested about $5 a student.

Of course, completion rates in MOOCs are an issue -- 5% of attendees completed the first EdX course, for instance. Erlichson said of the 30,000 people who have taken his two classes, about 18% completed them. That still more than quadruples the 1,000 or so students who have taken 10gen's in-person training classes.

The in-person classes are primarily attended by students in the U.S. and western Europe, said Erlichson, while a large number of the online students were from eastern Europe and Latin America. The top six were Russia, the U.S., Ukraine, Argentina, Spain and Bulgaria. More than half the online students said they would use the projects for work.

He sees a bright future for MOOCs in companies. "A lot of companies are going to do it," he predicted. "It's extremely effective from a cost standpoint and you open up new markets." Erlichson also thinks it will help address the skills gap, at least for technology firms. "The skills that go wanting in software right now are some of the easiest things to teach online," he said.

One educator is not so sure. "The dropout rates are pretty high for those types of classes," said Jesse M. Thompson, executive VP and CFO at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Mass. America's community colleges are often cited as the institutions best placed to help address skills gaps.

But Thompson is excited by Bunker Hill's own collaboration with EdX. Bunker Hill is one of two community colleges offering an EdX class on introductory software for credit to its students. It is combining the online course with a classroom led by faculty members. Combining online classes with on-site support could prove effective at increasing class completion rates.

"In the long term, (MOOCs) could have some impact on this whole skills gap, but it's too early to tell right now," Thompson said. "Especially as it relates to community college students."

But if other companies can do what 10gen did, MOOCs might mean they can address their own skills gaps.

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