In academia, Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCS] are now either the latest college fad or a seismic change akin to eliminating parietals and creating mixed male/female dorms. The premise for these types of courses is that much of our traditional classroom learning can be replaced by online classes taught by first rate lecturers using increasingly more dynamic technology. Students are dispersed around the world, participating through live, online classrooms and “bulletin board” chat sessions. Proposed benefits for this type of learning environment are lower costs, better instruction, and greater accessibility. While currently most MOOCS are offered for free and do not count for university credit, the idea is that eventually fees will be charged and credit given for these types of courses.
It is easy to look at academia and conclude that workplaces should move towards adapting this same new learning technology. After all, if the Ivy Leagues and other prestigious universities see MOOCs as a critical educational tool (as well as a much-needed source for additional revenue and prestige), then how long will it be until we move towards the same standard for our time-starved, financially-strapped, and increasingly global workplaces? To an extent, online training already exists in the workplace, consisting of modules accompanied by short quizzes. Already, millions of hours of online training are annually delivered to employees, focusing on workplace topics, such as harassment, code of conduct, ethics, and discrimination.
Yet, school and work are not the same. Overall, there are different learning purposes when we compare the undergraduate experience with workplace education. As college students, many of us went to class, wrote required papers, and crammed for tests. We wanted grades and recommendations for graduate school or for our first jobs. If we got the right mark, we met our objective and moved forward. We had a credential, and that is what mattered. If the truth be told, many of us forgot what we learned after turning in our last assignment or exam. While I am far removed from my college years, I am guessing that’s still true for many, if not most, students.
At work, however, there is a different educational purpose. If we are being required to go through training where we need to master and retain knowledge and skills, a one-time grade is not enough. It is a credential, but not evidence, of ongoing competency. For training to have any value, we have to be able to apply what we have learned in unexpected situations. Ultimately, the only grade that matters is how we handle a safety, ethical, compliance, customer, or manufacturing challenge, and that takes knowledge, judgment, reinforcement, leadership, role modeling and accountability. We need to consider very carefully whether such skills and reinforcement can be obtained and sustained through one-time, largely one way, learning experiences no matter how compelling.
In the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime information revolution, which has challenged the value of traditional learning approaches, it’s easy to be blinded by the lure of technology. In many organizations, the threshold questions are: “What are our technical resources and limits?” and “How do we use new technologies most effectively?”
Instead of considering these questions, we should choose delivery systems for learning content after answering these questions: “Why is learning being delivered?” and “What is the most effective way to reach learners?” Other questions to consider include:
- What is it that we are trying to teach? Is it knowledge which is most important, or are we trying to integrate knowledge with on-the-job application?
- Do we have a “hungry audience” or one which is not especially interested in our subject matter and possibly antagonistic to key concepts?
- How important is it that what is taught is applied and sustained beyond initial delivery for ongoing impact?
- No matter what delivery method we choose, what will be our strategy for keeping our learning alive and vibrant?
Our lives are enriched by technology, with advances in learning and communication beyond the limited horizon of our vision. As we move forward though, we need to take measured, careful steps and keep in mind that learning at work needs to produce ongoing results… not high scores for our permanent record cards.
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