• Journal Article

MOOCs: Not just for college students—How organizations can use MOOCs for professional development


Radford, A., Coningham, B., & Horn, L. (2015). MOOCs: Not just for college students—How organizations can use MOOCs for professional development. Employment relations today, 41(4), 1-15. DOI: 10.1002/ert.21469


The initial promise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) centered on lowering the cost of college and helping students complete their educational credentials in a shorter amount of time. Yet in the early stage of MOOC development, researchers have estimated that 65 to 75 percent of MOOC students already have college degrees.1 In addition, one study found that more than two-thirds of those who had taken one or more of 24 MOOCs through the University of Pennsylvania (which offered the second-largest number of MOOCs in the country through the popular Coursera platform) identified themselves as employees. Moreover, just 13 percent of these students took a MOOC to gain knowledge to earn a degree, whereas 44 percent enrolled to gain specific skills to do their job better, and an additional 17 percent signed up to learn skills necessary to get a job (see Christensen et al. in Note 1). Clearly, many individuals are taking MOOCs to prepare for or advance in their careers.

To explore how employers are using and might use MOOCs in the future, Duke University, in partnership with RTI International (RTI), conducted a quantitative and qualitative study called Finding and Developing Talent: The Role of MOOCs (FDT). Between November 15, 2013, and January 24, 2014, the project team surveyed human resource (HR) staff from 103 North Carolina organizations working in an array of industries. The team also conducted in-depth interviews with a subset of 20 survey participants. In the survey and interviews, HR professionals were first asked about their familiarity with MOOCs and then about their receptivity to using them for recruiting, influencing hiring decisions, and assisting in the professional development of existing employees. The results overwhelmingly indicated that the greatest immediate promise for the use of MOOCs among employers and employees centered on professional development.

In this article, we explore the use of MOOCs for professional-development purposes. We begin by presenting what we learned from the earlier FDT study on using MOOCs for professional development and then present RTI as a case study to examine the current feasibility of employers’ using MOOCs to replace or enhance their professional-development offerings.