Forget What You Thought You Knew About MOOCs

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Tech in Massachusetts is booming, and yet industry leaders continue to express unease about one key issue – a shortage of skilled workers.

The skills gap dominates the findings of both the State of the Tech Economy and the Massachusetts Tech Pulse Index that MassTLC released last year. “A shortage of skilled workers” appeared overwhelmingly as the single greatest challenge in the industry, far ahead of any issue. It’s something that, nearly halfway through 2018, continues to dominate anecdotally and statistically.

At MassTLC, we constantly monitor initiatives to address this gap – from new ideas to new partnerships and policies as well as the implementation of each. Recently, I decided to take one such of these initiatives and actually test it out myself.

Late last year, Governor Charlie Baker announced a partnership between EdX, GE, and Microsoft “to enable Massachusetts residents to upgrade their skills and careers with no-cost certificates to access EdX MicroMasters courses.” Part of the deal was that a set number of Massachusetts residents could enroll for free in certain EdX courses, identified by GE and Microsoft, in topics such as computer science, AI, and cloud computing – all critical and highly in-demand skills (not only demanded by GE and Microsoft, but by most local tech companies).

I was intrigued; to be honest, I had opinions about MOOCs (massive open online courses) and how effective they could be in reality. “Great for some people, but not for me at this point in my career,” I thought. I have a master’s degree in a topic that I love, and I enjoy the work that I do in communications and research. Not for me, right?

So I did what any curious skeptic would do and threw myself in to figure it out for myself. I signed up via the EdX in Massachusetts partnership for my own course voucher. Six months later, I am now halfway through my very first MOOC ( MITx Supply Chain Analytics, the first course in the MITx Supply Chain Management MicroMasters) and in that time, I have learned a lot – not only about supply chains, but about MOOCs, in general.

MOOCs are challenging.

If you are envisioning a series of simplified videos and sets of basic multiple-choice questions that anyone can breeze through, think again. What has most pleasantly surprised me about taking this class so far is just how satisfyingly not easy it is. It’s not enough to half-pay attention to a lecture and rush through some practice problems. I have to actually engage with the material and force myself to apply what I’ve learned to a variety of scenarios in order to earn that cherished green checkmark next to my (graded) homework assignments. I mean this positively – I can feel myself genuinely learning something new. That is to say, everything I’m absorbing is having a real effect and rooting itself in my brain.

MOOCs are engaging

I keep coming back to something that I explicitly think is “not easy” every day with such enthusiasm, because it’s engaging. Contrary to my expectation of having to force myself to stick with it, I have to instead force myself to leave the material (almost entirely math) to do other things. I never thought I enjoyed this kind of work, but now I find myself spending hours working on complex problems – and it’s fun. For me, the change lies in how this MOOC presents the concepts exclusively in the context of real-life scenarios. All of those functions and formulas I did in high school are more than symbols on a paper now. I love learning how to apply them when the outcome actually matters, and for that, I keep returning.

MOOCs are collaborative

“Online classes aren’t as good as the real thing, because you can’t learn from other students” – do you believe this? I did, before I enrolled in this class. In fact, one of the first things that stood out to me from Day 1 of SC0x was just how great of a job the team at MITx does at making me feel like I am more than one random person in front of a computer screen. I am part of a collective of thousands of students, all around the world, with a common purpose and goal. It’s more than just rhetoric. There are newsletters from the program director with career resources, course information, and alumni statistics. The course discussion boards are active. We are encouraged to introduce ourselves and to turn to our peers for help. And if we need more advanced help, there is an entire team in place at MIT, specifically for our program, there to assist. In that sense, it’s like any other program at any other university. I have never felt isolated or lost as an MOOC student.

MOOCs hold you accountable

It’s not flattering to admit, but I had my doubts about whether or not I could stick with this thing for any significant period of time. I’ve dabbled in some free online classes before, and typically life gets in the way, I get distracted, I lose interest, etc. This time, though, I’m working toward what’s called a “verified certificate,” and although I technically did not pay for this myself (remember, I had a voucher from the EdX-GE-Microsoft-Massachusetts partnership), simply knowing that my performance is being recorded somewhere and someone has paid for it has been enough to keep me majorly motivated. Every week, I’m graded on my homework performance. I recently had to sit for a midterm exam, and when the course ends, I’ll have to take a final. Of course, nothing drastic is going to happen if I simply stop turning in assignments, but I find myself treating the process with the same sense of respect and urgency as I would treat an in-person course at any level. There’s a sense that my performance is both recognized and that it matters.

My biggest takeaway so far

MOOCs are an incredible, accessible opportunity to learn (truly learn) new, in-demand skills. They are the real deal. Even better, they are affordable and can be done anytime, anywhere without having to take long periods of time off to return to school or make any significant investment. As someone who enjoys learning, I also find them fun – seriously.

Since this came out of a corporate partnership, this has cost me nothing. It was minimal risk for me, the employee (no need to worry about if it was worth my time or money); bigger organizations who could afford it took on the risk, and I, one small piece of the Massachusetts tech economy, am better skilled because of it.

For you, business owners / managers / industry leaders / politicians:

Harvard Business Review published a piece about MOOCs in the January/February 2018 edition (Can MOOCs Solve Your Training Problem?), which notes that, for organizations:

MOOCs offer many advantages: The fees are lower, there are no travel costs, and the courses are less disruptive to day-to-day work. They provide content produced by elite universities that’s often unavailable from local providers. Most MOOCs may be started at any time, and many are broken down into short modules, so they’re valuable for just-in-time skill acquisition. MOOCs also enable employers to provide development support in areas that are highly specialized or peripheral to individuals’ core jobs without having to worry about economies of scale. Although academics who study learning haven’t reached a consensus about course quality (it’s difficult to measure), learners typically feel that MOOCs are meeting their developmental needs.

In other words, my experience is not unique. MOOCs work when it comes to skill-upgrading, and can be a valuable tool for continuous training of the existing workforce.

If Massachusetts is to continue its upward economic growth trajectory, we as its citizens need to prepare for the future; we need to collectively upgrade local skills, and we need to close the talent gap.

No matter what your role is, if you are concerned about the talent gap, consider funding (or advocating for funding for) more of these verified certificates for more people, whether within your company or within the region as a whole. Work with more local universities, with EdX, and with other MOOC platforms to develop unique programs tailored to your specific organizational needs. Collaborate with the community.

This is a great, relatively low-cost opportunity to create real, local change.

From my experience and from the research, this is great opportunity for the future of Massachusetts.