Massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be a hot topic on college campuses, but in the workforce they’ve barely made an impression. A new joint study by Duke and RTI International surveyed over 100 employers in North Carolina to determine whether they were aware of MOOCs, and whether they would consider using them for employee recruitment or professional development. The most striking finding was just how few companies were even aware of these programs: more than two-thirds of companies surveyed had never heard of them. Despite years of heated discussion, it seems MOOCs have yet to pass one of the biggest tests for education: helping students get a job.But if the headline data is troubling for MOOC supporters, there’s still reason to believe MOOCs might have a bright future ahead of them. While most employers had no knowledge of MOOCs, they were overwhelmingly favorable toward them once they learned what they were. Only one company currently uses these online courses as a recruitment tool, but 57 percent of respondents believed that they would consider doing so, while 73 percent said they could see taking completion of a “job-related MOOC” into consideration when making hiring decisions. Companies were also enthusiastic about the possibility of using MOOCs as a professional development program for current employees. As one respondent put it:
I can see people who want to advance, who need to advance their education. We have a tuition reimbursement program but it is limited. If someone thought that they could go online and take a course on something or take classes for certification I think people WOULD really jump on it.
Reactions were particularly enthusiastic in the manufacturing, technology and business sectors, while health and finance companies were more skeptical.It’s important to note that these replies, while mostly positive, are based on a purely theoretical understanding of MOOCs. These programs are still far too new to be well understood by employers are and it remains to be seen whether MOOC creators can come up with actual courses that will be taken seriously as a credential.Nonetheless, this is a good sign for the new way of learning. One of the key potential benefits of MOOCs is that they could break college’s stranglehold over all education, allowing students access to build skills in their chosen field without taking the time or the expense of going through a full four-year program. This would be a significant change, but it will only work if businesses view these programs as a reasonable alternative to college courses. It’s still far too soon to tell, but this suggests at the very least that businesses are still open to the idea, even if they aren’t yet convinced.