Reflections on the value of MOOCs

A few weeks ago, Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch) asked me to contribute my perspective to a piece he was writing on MOOCs for a new L&D magazine (“LEO”). Aside from it being a fun thing to do – write a few words, record a short video intro – it prompted me to think a lot about my MOOC experiences, and how they’ve contributed to my professional practice.

I’ve since come across some more perspectives and online conversations on corporate MOOCs, which have further helped flesh out my initial reflections. Conversations on MOOCs definitely seem to be creeping from the domain of higher ed and into the corporate sphere. Some of the items on Corporate MOOCs that caught my interest lately were:

Whilst the IMC report includes some interesting ideas on using MOOCs as part of an organisation’s recruitment strategy, much of the current conversation on the use of MOOCs for learning and development within the corporate context centres on application of the (x)MOOC model for:

  • employee professional development
  • ‘off the shelf’ alternatives to complement existing training offerings and/or
  • incorporating as part of a broader formal learning program.

All of these are certainly promising, and potentially viable for immediate application within a corporate context. And where you have well defined learning objectives or aim to support the development of ‘foundational’ knowledge, highly structured, content driven (x)MOOCs may well be a good option. The (x)MOOC format is also very much aligned to the way formal learning / training is both used and designed in the corporate environment (i.e. specific, well defined learning objectives, structured, linear content-focused course with defined start & end points).

And if we’re talking about introducing MOOCs into (conventionally conservative) corporate environments, starting with MOOC models which don’t dramatically diverge from existing pedagogical frameworks is a sensible approach (or at least an easier pitch to the execs).

However: I am most excited about the possibility of what might happen if we took a (c)MOOC framework and adapted it for a corporate context – how & what it might look like, and what could be achieved. As Michelle mentioned in her post, the social and project aspect of the MOOC is usually the most engaging. But this is often peripheral (if present at all) in the xMOOC format. In contrast, cMOOCs have connection (with other participants, with ideas & concepts) at the core – pedagogy and structure is explicitly designed to support this: it’s primarily about connection rather than just content access and individual knowledge acquisition.

My MOOC experiences

I’ve actively participated in 3 MOOCs:

Whilst the Gamification MOOC via Coursera wasn’t bad – I found the content interesting, the assignments were designed to support real world application of concepts, I  completed all requirements as stated, and even applied some of the concepts in my work. But: I never felt deeply moved, challenged, or inspired. Nor did I connect with anyone in the course. Yes there were discussion forums, and I did visit them once or twice but found the sheer number of disparate conversations overwhelming and hard to follow.

cMOOCs as vehicle for inspiration, behaviour change & community building

In contrast, #xplrpln and #rhizo14 – both ‘c’ (‘Connectivist’) style MOOC experiences have primarily provided the opportunity to meet, engage with and be inspired by a bunch of unique individuals from a range of diverse contexts and backgrounds (higher ed, k-12 ed, academia, not for profit, corporate and more); people who are driven to continually question, challenge, disrupt, explore, change, and improve themselves, others and the status quo.

cMOOCs are usually smaller (not massive – 100s rather than 1000s) – so conversations tend to be more constructive, meaningful and stimulating rather than chaotic, disorganised and inaccessible as they are in the more massive xMOOCs. This combined with a generally low structure, connectivist approach, focused on exploring and reflecting on complex, ill structured problems, or issues with no single or clear answer (thus necessarily requiring collaboration and in depth discussion with others to make meaning of the ambiguity); and conducted out in the open web (rather than on closed, private platforms) – all helps to both attract people who thrive in these environments, and to support the rapport building that results in close PLN relationships which persist long after the ‘course’ ends (> since the MOOC is conducted on social platforms participants already use, conversations simply continue on those platforms after the course ‘ends’).

Although I’ve only participated in two cMOOCs, they may be two of the most impactful personal and professional development experiences I’ve had – not simply because they exposed me to a whole range of new perspectives – and changed my perspective, thinking & mindset on a whole load of things (which has had a flow-on effect on the way I approach what I do at work). But what has been absolutely critical has been the people I have met, conversations I’ve had, collaborations I have engaged in, and stuff I’ve made . Many of these connections have become close members of my PLN and led to number of ongoing collaborations after the event which have contributed far greater to personal and professional development than any conventional course. Many of these collaborations are focused on building networks and communities, bringing people and ideas together:


My cMOOC collaborations – click on the image for the interactive version via ThingLink with more info on connections and collaborations >

What I get out of the cMOOC experience is not necessarily practical strategies, ideas or actions that I can apply directly to my workplace (which I might get from say, an industry event, workshop, conference targeted to the field of corporate L&D that I work – or indeed, an xMOOC targeted to a domain of knowledge or skill I have a need to develop). Yet it’s something that actually has greater value than practical application: it’s the shift in mindset that results from engaging with people who are driven to continually question, experiment, explore and improve -> it’s that you start to adopt this mindset yourself too. Start to see challenges as opportunities to explore possibilities, become a little braver, make the leap from thinking about experimenting to actually doing it. No longer (as) afraid of being challenged, but open to it – inviting challenge rather than being defensive. It’s more than just being inspired. It’s inspiration + action to = change. Change in the way you think, learn and act – about life, work, learning, and yourself. It is the personal, human connections and inspiration that Clarissa speaks eloquently of in her posts on #CLMOOC and #Rhizo14.

It’s the type of engagement that most conventional courses and programs dream of achieving, and it’s the reason why I get so frustrated with the continual focus on ‘completion’ as a means to evaluate the effectiveness or value of MOOCs. It’s not about completion; it’s about engagement. And thought-provoking, behaviour-changing engagement can be triggered even through one conversation or experience – as long as it’s with the right people, at the right time, and at the right level.

cMOOCs as a framework to support workplace goals?

So: how might cMOOCs be adapted to add value in a corporate context?

I’m wondering if the MOOC framework could be set up such that it directly supports the workplace goals: by using a connectivist, problem based learning approach, where participants collectively work on a relevant, ill defined problem; where objectives aren’t always clear from the outset (or defined by participants rather than the instructor) – and where there certainly isn’t any single ‘correct’ answer to the problem >> much like in the real world. This was the approach used in the ‘Exploring PLNs’ cMooc and it was very effective. And if the experiences ARE actually open, there is the potential to support global, cross-organisational / cross-context, (as well as intra-organisational) collaboration and knowledge/experience sharing – which could be the most exciting of all > not just breaking silos within organisations but across organisations and contexts (e.g. institutional: where you might possibly have say ppl from higher ed, teachers etc collaborating with corporate). We know that innovation comes from taking ideas and applying them in novel ways or contexts – it commonly happens at the boundaries of CoPs or in open, diverse networks – thus this *could* be a way of pitching it to corporates who are generally pretty guarded about ‘sharing’ organisational knowledge. Sure we might be a little way from this and yes there may be barriers to getting there, but as Maha reminds us in her email signature:

“We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.” –

13 thoughts on “Reflections on the value of MOOCs

  1. Kerrie (@KerrieBurow) says:

    “I’m wondering if the MOOC framework could be set up such that it directly supports the workplace goals: by using a connectivist, problem based learning approach, where participants collectively work on a relevant, ill defined problem…”
    Awesome idea, Tanya. Would love to participate in a MOOC which did that.
    Great blog post!

    • tanyalau says:

      Thanks Kerrie! Yup – don’t think there is a huge leap to do this internally, within an organisation – there are probably organisations now running programs that are structured around peer networking, collaboration and problem based learning (I know that Helen Blunden developed a social onboarding program recently which had networking as a core outcome (which totally makes sense for onboarding / induction, right?; and I know there are leadership and innovation programs being developed within my org that are working towards taking similar approaches…)
      But – making these programs open – open to people in other organisations to enrol, conducted on the open web rather than within a proprietary LMS or closed system – that’s the real kicker; the one defining factor that differentiates using a MOOC framework from just rolling out an an innovative organisational program; and the one that will be the biggest mindset change and hurdle for organisations to get over. Possibly an idea worth considering though.

  2. francesbell says:

    Thanks Tanya for telling us about the approach to solving an ill-defined problem on your Exploring PLN MOOC. That sounds engaging. Regarding applying Cmoocs in corporate settings, I could imagine that the problem-solving approach could work well in an existing CoP with additional opportunities for exchanging innovation ideas in a cross-organisational setting. If could also contribute to community building. But then you know much more about Corporate L&D than I do;)

    • tanyalau says:

      Hello Frances! Thank you for visiting, really lovely to see you here. Yes the Exploring PLNs mooc was run by Jeff Merrell and Kimberley Scott – they did a great job of it. There really was just the right balance of structure and freedom for those who were there; But then Jeff was also pretty intentional about luring in people who he thought would actively engage in the experience (he’s a really good connector in that respect). I think the most important thing about the problem they presented though was that it really was very tricky – there literally were no clear answers – and Jeff and Kimberley certainly didn’t have an answer either (the ‘problem’ or challenge was that your CEO had heard about PLNs and wanted to implement them in the organisation….the task was to explain and provide guidance to the CEO on what to do). The thing about this problem is that you could potentially argue either way and each of these arguments has its pros and cons.
      I think the biggest issue with exchanging or sharing ideas across organisations is whether the organisation/s would want to or be tempted to try to control this process (and thereby potentially impact or kill innovation by directing it too much – this was the same issue as with the concept of organisations wanting to ‘encourage’ or ‘implement’ PLNs – PLNs are an individual’s Personal Learning Network, which they’ve build and fostered over time. It can or should never be owned by the corporation.

  3. Activate Learning Solutions says:

    Thanks for your thought provoking post Tanya. As always you present a topic that gets us thinking about the application of the medium back into a workplace context – hence why I so enjoy them. You know my feeling towards cMOOCs. Like yourself, they have been mind blowing but I don’t know if it’s actually related to the particular topic or that the level of discussion, argument and debate but also the opportunity to reflect and apply new thinking, new ideas, new approaches gives us the confidence to give something a go back into our own workplace contexts. In effect, it seems that the discussion gives us the ‘power’ (?) or the ‘freedom’ to experiment. All of a sudden, we are not around people who think like us, who work like us, who are constrained by the same things as us – this then gets us thinking about our own experiences, values. cMOOCs have made me question WHY I do things a certain why. They’ve made me inquisitive to seek out WHY we do the things we do. Surely that must be a good thing back to organisations who are trying to engage their workforce, and to encourage innovation.

    I don’t know how cMOOCs will play out in organisation but part of me is thinking that L&D should not even play a part in them – these are just self-managed groups of people who come together from all parts of the organisation to work on a problem and facilitated by someone who reserves judgement but who can draw out the main threads and key themes. Really, that could be anyone – doesn’t have to be a trainer, a facilitator, a Learning person – but it would help to have someone who has an interest in engaging everyone and inspires everyone to contribute their expertise or skills or knowledge to the argument/problem/issue… the moment we put a level of formality about it around assessment, evaluations, ROI – whatever, it loses its appeal but we seem to get lost in that circular argument because someone, somehow, will bring it there.

    “How are we going to make a buck from getting people together to just talk and solve problems?” herein lies the problem…

    Thanks for the great post!!

    • tanyalau says:

      wow thanks Helen for your thoughtful and engaging comment – THIS is why I had such a great time in xplrpln with you – the opportunity to think through things with someone who inspired by by both the opportunities and complexities, and willing to tackle them head on. I’m really glad I met you there because it has had such an impact on my outlook and interest in networks & communities. And being involved in third place with you has been the perfect way to build on our rapport – and a way to create some of the change, and put into practice some of the ideas we talk about. I adore reading your posts too – always riveting, they always make me smile, think and inspired that it is possible to carve out change, one step at a time.
      In terms of cMoocs in orgs, I think for a start, not calling them ‘courses’ is something to seriously consider. As I wrote in response to Michelle’s post this is one of the reasons I liked Elliot Maisie’s video in the ‘mooc on corporate moocs’ (and if it was on an OPEN PLATFORM I’d be able to link out to it – but alas, no…) – but his suggestion to change the ‘c’ from ‘courses’ to ‘collaboration’ is a step in the right direction. I agree that any association with formal training courses, and all that it entails (completion reporting, ROI, evaluation, centralised control etc) will likely kill the magic. And even if L&D aren’t involved in ‘facilitating’ the experience there will still be the temptation for the organisation to manage or control it or get prescribed outcomes out of it – cue all of the conversations we’ve had about the challenges of ‘implementing’ PLNs within an organisation.
      Until organisations let go of existing structures and hierarchies, (and possibly the corporate firewall) cMOOC experiences within an organisation will never be the same as they are outside the organisation (but maybe one day when we’re all just working virtually as contractors in workplace networks instead of employees in hierarchically structured organisations). However maybe what we can do as a starting point is try to capture some of the spirit of cMOOCs – e.g. focus on facilitating experiences that focus on connection rather than just content. The work you’ve been doing in social onboarding is a perfect example of this. Next step? Extending this peer networking approach to connect with relevant people & experts outside the organisation rather than just within; having organisations reward and acknowledge the benefits of building diverse networks outside as well as within. I think the biggest potential for ‘selling’ or ‘pitching’ this / making a business case for this to orgs is the innovation angle – in particular, research and approaches in ‘open innovation’ (e.g. could help make organisations more accepting of relaxing the mindset of ownership over ideas, products & people.
      Anyway – great to share ideas as usual, thanks again for thought provoking ideas!

      • kjeannette says:

        Tanya, I really enjoyed thinking through your post. I was thinking along the lines of what you just mentioned about making a business case for the innovation angle. I’ve been reading a lot about companies partnering with other outside organizations to implement sustainability goals. These are usually much bigger and more longer term goals than could be achieved within the corporate context themselves, so in these cases, I could see a model like cMoocs helpful for targeting some key partners (likely non profit, government, and corporate) to come together to teach new ideas and applications for solving these sustainability problems, and then letting the partners come together for a project (like in xplrpln) to solve these big problems. Even though you would target key partners, you could make the cMooc open to anybody interested in the offering and project of the cMooc. I would see this is something you could pitch not only to Innovation, but also to marketing/PR. As I’ve had a few discussions along the lines of: “Doesn’t the M in Mooc actually stand for ‘Marketing” (vs Massive)?” So it might work to pitch these ideas to Marketing/PR and Innovation?

        Along the lines of how do you make a buck? In my experience, it takes a lot of work to find and coordinate the right types of people and expertise required for bringing interdisciplinary teams to work toward a common and often new goal. I would think that to provide the right kind of format, set-up, not to mention technical support to generate the type of collaboration and knowledge sharing required for such an effort would be a service worth paying for….but then again, my knowledge of the context of your work in limited. I’d be curious to see if you might see this applicable to your situation.

        Thanks for bringing this post together. There are many good threads here that I’m still looking into. I appreciate the opportunity to think about the value in applying lessons from cMoocs in different contexts, and what that would mean.

  4. tanyalau says:

    Karen, thank you for leaving your thoughts and building on mine – really appreciate it. And really excited at the ideas you’re pulling together! I was just doing some blue sky thinking out loud and love that you’ve taken that, and built on it to make it seem like it could really happen. I have also (or had…late last year) been reading a bit about open innovation projects, and think that type of idea could potentially fit in with an adaptation of a problem based cMooc – perhaps using a real problem. It’s kind of exciting that you’re thinking along the same lines (would be awesome to collaborate on something like that…I’m not quite sure where to start though!?!). Agree it’d be tricky to find the right mix of people, and even perhaps the right kind of project. Similar challenges I imagine as you’d face when setting up a cMooc. Interesting thoughts on marketing/PR – and I guess any successful innovation project is good marketing / PR for those involved. In terms of how this type of thing *could* work in my organisational situation? I work for a state government transport agency, and we do / have partnered with organisations like universities and other transport / industry groups to develop things like certification programs and the like. So perhaps extending this type of collaboration to focus more on improving or innovating existing transport technologies, networks, systems might be one potential outlet. Or (on something which interests me much more) even partnering with relevant organisations/bodies to promote something like diversity, empathy, by changing practices and attitudes towards different cultures, abilities, religions, race etc (We do have a very diverse employee base and I’m working on a project with our diversity team at the moment on raising awareness of diversity and unconscious bias so this area interests me a lot) Since much unconscious bias in the workplace occurs at the point of recruitment there could be an opportunity to partner with organisations like recruitment agencies, job search centres, technical colleges, universities to promote awareness and help them develop strategies for combatting something like unconscious bias – thereby opening up opportunities to a more diverse pool of potential applicants > which ultimately benefits our organisation as it results in a potentially more diverse & representative workforce….which can lead to things like better customer service and innovative ideas etc. Again, just thinking out loud here : )
    Thanks again for playing in the sandpit of these ideas with me Karen, great to have throw ideas around with you!

  5. kjeannette says:

    Tanya, the work you are doing sounds really great. A few resources or ideas come to mind when you tell me more about what you do, and what you are thinking about….

    1)I really appreciate the entire issue of the April 2014 Harvard Business Review, the article “Sustainability a CFO Can Love” highlighted how UPS chose to determine and focus its sustainability efforts. It seemed to be an article that would be very applicable to your situation as a governmental transportation agency. This and other articles in this issue had other interesting ideas on partnerships, collaboration, and leadership that I think apply to this conversation.

    2) These two articles offer some good ideas about involving citizens in science and governmental services.

    I especially like the Participedia article, which – defines some roles that you could think about as you design something like a cMooc inspired experience.

    3)In MN, our department of transportation has taken on a lot of landscape, environmental issues related to our roadways and related greenspaces. As I went to look them up, it also looks like they are also tackling diversity issues. I thought I’d share a link to their webinars page — (I started viewing the public participation webinar — and the first 15 minutes does a nice job of framing what to consider to engage a range or perspectives in the participation process).

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I hope you don’t feel obligated to view the resources above thoroughly. I was going to share on Twitter, but there just wasn’t enough room for all them….only use or read them if you think they could be useful to you! 🙂

    • tanyalau says:

      Karen – finally got a chance to sit down properly and take a look at these. Wanted to reiterate a big thank you and how much I appreciate you taking the time to lay down these resources for me. I will definitely take a look at them!! They all sound very relevant. I’m actually looking at something in PLNs and open innovation in my masters research (although freaking out slightly because I need to re-enrol for next semester and really haven’t narrowed anything down yet!!) – anyway, I think the first 3 in your list above will likely help towards this for me too. Thanks again – I also really appreciate the short summaries you have provided – very very thoughtful. Have so enjoyed our discussions on both our blogs over the last few weeks! Really glad for the opportunity….still holding out distant hopes that maybe we’ll even get a chance to work together one day!! ; )

  6. Jeff Merrell says:

    This resonates on so many levels. Which I find truly interesting – that we’ve not really collaborated on anything over the last few months, but then I come back and read this (post and comments) and am nodding my head (yes, yes….and yes to that, too). Much of what you say here could have come from conversations I’ve had with the team back here at Northwestern. (among the shared insights – Don’t let L&D anywhere near the idea of running a cMOOC internally 🙂 ).

    Let me add a couple of things.

    First – if any one of you ever wants to attempt a problem-based learning cMOOC in a corporate setting, please contact me. I’d be happy to share insights from designing and facilitating Exploring PLNs (a lot of which was shared in this thread on Helen Crump’s blog: Now that I am back blogging again – and have reflected a bit more on xplrpln – I am sure I’ll be writing some more on it as well.

    Second, I love your line: It’s not about completion, it’s about engagement. It struck me as a wonderful way to think about the design of cMOOCs and other forms of open online learning. Look: If you design some learning activity that results in a work product (something that signifies “completion”) – then the best way to get people to complete it is to focus on the engagement bit. If I am engaged and internally motivated (in a well-designed, PBL cMOOC) then I’ll complete the thing and create the work product (ok…maybe with a little bit of social nudging, a time line and deadline….but you get the point). And even if I don’t complete it – if I am engaged at some level, I am learning how to think more critically, to deal with complexity, and to build that muscle that helps me get through the kinds of challenges we all face in our organizational lives.

    One of the challenges I am thinking about is how we give credit to “non-completers.” It’s the same issue with lurkers – how do we recognized and acknowledge that lurking is really part of the whole learning process? (See Bernard Bull’s post on MOOC assessment, and especially number 5: Design for a Pick and Choose Mindset

    And of course there are other things to work through. But what I have come to most greatly appreciate are the explorers like you, and all of your commenters here. We work things out by doing them, and reflecting out in the open. That’s the magic.

    • tanyalau says:

      Jeff – thank you for your comment. It’s reminded me how much I love your writing and communication style (look forward to your return to blogging!!). There is something about it that is both succinct, yet says so much and just seems to hit precisely the right points.
      Thanks for reminding me of Helen Crump’s great post – and moreover your comments. I remember being fascinated back then by the insights into your thinking behind the design of the experience.
      Regarding learning evaluation – perhaps part of the answer might be making blogging or microblogging (reflecting) about process / working out loud part of the experience – this would at least provide some way to capture the learning of non-completers (even if they don’t submit a final ‘product’). I really like the MOOC assessment link you’ve included – thank you for this. Items 9 and 10 really struck me too, and are quite pertinent to the conclusions I was heading towards: 9. Strive for a Design That Promotes a Culture of Learning, not Earning (in particular really like the idea of thinking of the MOOC design objective as cultivating a ‘purpose driven community’ – not just a ‘course’); 10. Leave Room for Student-Initiated Feedback Loops and Assessment Plans – encouraging blogging and designing in peer feedback.
      Still not going to capture the activity / value of lurkers though, as any credit / evaluation is reliant on evidence. Then again, maybe we’re thinking the wrong way about the whole evaluation / credit piece. Do we really need to give external ‘credit’ for participating? What’s the value? Who is this really for? Is it for the participants, or just for us to be able to make a business case to academic institutions to justify spending time and money running a MOOC? Lurkers or ‘samplers’ are always going to be present in open online experiences – perhaps the challenge is just finding better, more creative ways to encourage them to provide feedback to course facilitators / designers on their experience.

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