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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) lessons for business leaders

Posted by Chad O'Connor  January 13, 2014 06:00 AM

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If one of your New Year’s resolutions is “Learn something new”, try Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In January 2012, Harvard and MIT committed $30M each to develop the edX platform, which offers online courses from the world’s finest institutions. Today, the edX consortium has grown to include more than 30 universities, offering 127 courses to over 1.6 million students. Some edX offerings, such as MITx class on electrical circuits, enroll over 150,000 students in a single class.

To accommodate for such massive growth, course developers and instructors have been making a special effort to make sure that each of these 1.6 million students can learn in the best possible way. How can MOOCs remain relevant and personal for students, fitting their goals, learning styles, and cultural preferences? The answer is setting learning goals, using the case method to work in small groups, and connecting with other learners. The insights from MOOCs can be particularly useful to business leaders that are experiencing rapid growth and need to continue delivering the best possible experience for their customers and employees.

1. Set Learning Goals
All edX students can share their motivations for taking online classes at registration. For the MITx course on circuit electronics, for example, responses range from “employment/job advancement” to “the knowledge and skills gained as a result from taking the course” to even the “entertainment value”.

To see whether these goals are becoming a reality (talk about this New Year’s resolution!), Sergiy Nesterko, a Harvard-affiliated researcher at HarvardX, is leading a study connecting learning goals to student engagement in class and corresponding learning outcomes. The study is still ongoing, but his group’s preliminary results seem to suggest that student goals do correlate with the certificate attainment rate, although the exact mechanism is not clear yet. To translate the findings into the corporate environment, ask your employees to formulate their long-term business goals, and structure their day-to-day responsibilities with the company accordingly.

2. Use the Case Method
Another powerful way to improve student experience with an online course is to encourage dialog among learners. Harvard professor Regina Herzlinger is teaching a HarvardX online course called Innovating in Healthcare on the edX platform in Spring 2014. Traditionally, she has been teaching using the case method, which requires students to read business cases prior to class, using the classroom time for discussion and debate.

To replicate the benefits of the case method in the online environment, Prof. Herzlinger is experimenting with matching students into small groups in her online class. "In the course, students can form small teams of 4-6 compatible people who will work together to discuss the cases and write business plans for innovative health care ventures. "Innovating in Health Care”, based on the second-year MBA courses which I teach, is one of the first MOOCs that enables students to work in small groups, and thus facilitates the interactive discussion so essential to business success and to case-based learning”, says Herzlinger.

3. Enable the Dialog
Students in online courses regularly talk to each other on the internet, to discuss the material, ask questions about homework, and connect with their peers. In addition to basic forum functionality provided by edX, several smaller companies provide innovative solutions to connect learners to each other. Coursera, а popular provider of online courses, has experimented with a platform called MindMixer, which enables for more efficient participation of people in their communities. The pilot with MindMixer has increased the rate of course retention to almost 30%, compared to the usual course completion rate of 5-10%.

If employee turnover is an issue for your business, consider enabling community participation and better organizational cohesion. Think of what could be analogous to an online discussion board at your organization. Your return on investment could do as much as triple the employee retention rate.

Implications for Business Leaders
Online learning is useful not only for personal self-improvement, but also for businesses. Leaders that are looking to achieve organizational goals, build strong teams, and improve employee retention, can learn from online courses. The Harvard and MIT partnership has indeed blossomed; the two institutions investment in a technology platform to enable planning, team building, and communities of learners has allowed them and other universities to achieve and sustain tremendous growth. Your business can do the same – and better.

Svetlana Dotsenko is the Founder and CEO of Project Lever, an educational technology company that matches students to advisors. She is also the Co-PI of the study of “MOOC Personalization on various learning goals” financed by the Gates Foundation with Dr. Sergiy Nesterko as PI. Her company Project Lever is working with HarvardX and Prof. Herzlinger's course team to enable matching of students into small groups.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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