Study: Employers interested in using MOOCs for professional development

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— Many employers are generally receptive to using massive open online courses, called MOOCs, for employee professional development, according to a study by researchers at RTI International.

"It is sometimes difficult for HR staff to offer specialized courses, including those in technology and health, because they often lack expertise and proper resources in these areas," said Alexandria Walton Radford, Ph.D., program director in postsecondary education at RTI International and the study's director. "MOOCs allow employers the opportunity to offer a wide range of specialized content at a low cost and at the convenience of the employee."

Researchers surveyed human resources professionals from 103 North Carolina organizations between November 2013 and January 2014 to ask about their familiarity with MOOCs and how they are using or might use MOOCs.

In interviews with a subset of 20 of these HR professionals, participants indicated that as more employees begin to telecommute or work outside company headquarters, MOOCs could be a more convenient option for employers to provide training. HR representatives also reported liking how MOOCs could help them meet content needs and expand the range of course offerings employers could provide to employees.

Many HR professionals surveyed were interested in using MOOCs to meet employees' desires to develop skills such as leadership, communication and management.

"Having examined the reactions of HR staff from North Carolina organizations about the possibility of using MOOCs for professional development, we turned to our own organization, RTI, to examine how we might integrate these courses," said Laura Horn, RTI's director of postsecondary education research and the RTI site principal investigator.

Researchers first examined which RTI employees were taking advantage of the more than 300 in-person and online courses offered through RTI University, the organization's learning and development platform.

The study, published in Employment Relations Today, found courses focused on communication, leadership and management were the most popular at RTI, aligning with the demand for these courses expressed by HR personnel interviewed. 

The researchers also observed the characteristics of RTI staff members who might be more likely to take MOOCs. They found that staff members with lower salary grades and less formal education (who may be younger and less experienced) were more likely than other staff to enroll in online RTI University courses. This population may be particularly open to using MOOCs to develop skills. Also staff members with and without access to in-person courses were equally likely to participate in RTI University's online courses, suggesting that MOOCs may hold similar appeal for staff with and without in-person options.

"Given that MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon, organizations should experiment with how these courses can best align with the habits and preferences of employees to further professional development," said Beatriz Coningham, director of global organization development and learning at RTI.