14 June 2014
14 June 2014,

MOOCs have played a key role in changing society’s view of what a ‘good’ education is and the insistence of employers to employ based on graduating school and mode of study.

Employers’ have a long-held belief that the best education is provided by face-to-face tuition in a ‘brand’ institution[1]. It is this employability premium which elite universities feed off, with students paying huge fees, not just for the quality of the education, but for the name on the degree.

Recent publications[2] discuss the arrival of MOOC’s, the development of MOOCs, or the ethical implications of MOOCs. While this is useful discussion, MOOCs themselves provide for a small and specific market. MOOCs are a flash-in-the-pan and will not be remembered for their learner outcomes.

MOOCs can provide benefits for institutions at a cost, much like marketing or research and development (hence the ethical issues). MOOCs can also provide valuable knowledge and skills for capable learners seeking micro-advantages in their professional or personal life. However, there are no sustainable financial models for MOOCs that focus on quality learning and student outcomes[3].

So, MOOCs are a loss leader, but one which has produced a surprising benefit: they have been the catalyst for change – specifically, potentially disruptive change in employers’ attitudes to the employment of graduates of online courses.

Until the mid 2000’s employers rated online education as the poor cousin to face-to-face delivery. Leading bricks-and-mortar institutions were happy to perpetuate this perception as it supported continuing fee increases and enrolment pressure at their door.

Things changed when students stopped enrolling. By 2010 the payback on a degree had disappeared. It no longer made financial sense to spend $50,000+ on a degree, no matter how prestigious the institution.

While learners, institutions and employers realized the current model was broken, disruptive change was dependent on there being an alternative: a new way of doing things.

The development of the first MOOC’s provided just that: a new model. But more importantly, the new model was founded by leading traditional providers: Stanford and MIT – names employers knew and trusted.

2012, the year of the MOOCs, did not deliver a panacea. In delivery MOOCs fixed nothing, but the hype they created encouraged existing distance and online education models to be revisited and discussed in the context of game-changing online and mobile technologies. Crucially, the discussion was a public and accessible one[4], and included learners and employers as well as the education sector.

Graduate capability has been a leading topic in these global discussions. It is widely recognised that the ability to work in a team, communicate, innovate and adapt, and resolve problems is more often learned in the workplace. Employers see these skills as attributes of a capable employee[5].

It is fair to say that most employers accept online learning can deliver the knowledge required for a degree. However, an important change in thinking has been acceptance that learners graduating with online degrees have more immediate capability in the workplace – often because they have worked while studying.

Learners recognise this too. As well as reducing debt, the experience gained in the workplace while studying can provide an edge in a competitive job market. Learners are now asking, “why would I study in a traditional university or college?”

MOOCs have helped us see online, distance and part-time education in the context of new technologies, and help expose the false benefits of high cost, traditional forms of delivery.

Employer acceptance of online learning is the last bolt on the door. Beyond is a world where learners have choices and flexibility.  And we have MOOCs to thank for catalysing discussion about new models of education and helping employers move beyond traditional views of education.


[1] Not Yet Sold. What employers and community college students think about online education. 2013. www.publicagenda.org

[2] The Arrival of MOOCs, 2014. ISBN 978-0-478-32030-5. 2014.

Exploring the Ethical Implications of MOOCs. 2014. www.tandfonline.com

[3] Beyond MOOCs: Sustainable Online learning in Institutions. 2014 www.publications.cetis.ac.uk

[4] Social media and global networks provided a new platform for open discussion.

[5] Employers’ Perceptions of Employability of New Graduates. 2011. www.edge.co.uk