Can “Massive Open Online Courses” help improve employability?

Inclusive Economy10 Oct 2014Wipada Panichpathom, Clara Franco, Dilnoza Nigmonova

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a new learning phenomenon in the world of higher education and digital technology. Especially for developing countries, they are portrayed as a great opportunity for free education, boosting the employability of a young generation. But can MOOCs really be a great equalizer?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have elicited great attention from universities, professionals, employers and students. They represent a new learning phenomenon in the world of higher education and digital technology, which has stimulated heated debates around online learning in a short period of time. But amidst the “hype”, what actual effects – if any – and new opportunities might this model of learning offer, especially in terms of opportunities for further education, or for the labor market?

The present study, carried out in partnership between the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the World Economic Forum (WEF), offers up-to-date perspectives on MOOCs in the context of developing countries, specifically Mexico and Thailand, and analyzes some of the major issues that developing countries need to consider when supporting and implementing MOOCs. We have particularly researched the issues of MOOCs’ real accessibility, their effects on employability, and their general advantages and shortcomings. As currently most of the data and views surrounding MOOCs tend to come from developed countries,it is important to answer the frequently voiced question: do MOOCs really expand access to education and training for those previously excluded from it?

Low rates of access to higher education are still a significant challenge faced by many Southeast Asian and Latin American states in general, and by Mexico and Thailand in particular. In both countries, there is a need to substantially expand access to quality education and raise employability. MOOCs could potentially help to enhance the possibilities of gaining better jobs or on-the-job training within an ambitious time frame.

Benefit for those who need it the least

In our survey, not only had the vast majority of the respondents benefitted from previous education, but 85.9% had attained at least an undergraduate degree or higher. This figure tells a powerful story about who is able to benefit from MOOCs – mostly people who, in some way or another, have already had the benefits of formal, traditional higher education. There are three significant barriers of access to MOOCs. The first is technological, in terms of access to equipment and internet. Second, there is a language barrier, as most MOOCs are provided in English. And finally, many courses require previous knowledge that may not be easily accessible to someone who has been unable to complete basic levels of education. The MOOCs offered by universities generally relate to cutting-edge technology or state-of-the-art knowledge, which require an advanced educational background.

MOOCs and the employment market

And how about using MOOCs for employability or further university studies? If MOOCs are better suited to enable people with previous specialized knowledge to keep their skills updated and to continuous education, they hardly offer greater employability benefits to those who have never been able to attend school or had a formal job.

But that does not mean that MOOCs cannot be beneficial as further training for those who need it, and who have already capitalized on formal education or specialized skills. Some employers in developing countries (for instance in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia or South America) see MOOCs as an opportunity to save significant amounts of time and financial resources in training their staff. However, given that some authors have criticized MOOC providers for not having uniform standards of quality – rather relying on the assumed quality of big “brand-name” universities – there could be a concern that employers might want to provide affordable “on-the-job training” through MOOCs whose quality has not been verified.

During our survey, MOOC instructors, providers and students from developing countries were asked about their own perception of how MOOCs can affect the “larger picture” of training and employability. Our findings have illustrated that a significant percentage of respondents agreed with the idea that MOOCs will help them gain better employment opportunities.

We can detail this information by occupation (excluding those who are retired):

Taking this MOOC would give me better employment opportunities
Strongly Agree or Agree Neutral Disagree or Strongly Disagree No Opinion TOTAL
Business Owner or Self-Employed (52) 37% 42.30% 13.46% 7.69% 100%
Employed (135) 47.40% 28.14% 19.25% 5.18% 100%
Researcher (2) 50.00% 50.00% 100%
Student (92) 50.00% 27.17% 14.13% 8.60% 100%
Unemployed (32) 34.37% 40.62% 21.87% 3.12% 100%
University Professor (70) 45.71% 38.57% 7.14% 8.57% 100%

Employed people, professors, and students mostly agree with the statement that MOOCs would give them better employment opportunities, while unemployed people and business owners tend to consider it less relevant. Respondents share the belief that MOOCs are not yet able to bridge the gap between employees and future employers in developing countries. When asked what advantages they see in MOOCs for their own countries, only 12 of the 391 respondents mentioned the employment possibilities of MOOCs.

A question of accessibility

The inconsistency in responses can be explained by some of the previously presented findings: the fact that most people who benefit from MOOCs have already had the opportunity of formal higher education, and are therefore more likely to be employed or have been employed for their specialized skills. Moreover, as MOOCs are a recent phenomenon, many employers in developing countries have most likely not heard about them and might question the legitimacy of the certificates, but this problem could dissipate as MOOCs gain popularity and traction. In some regions however, access to broadband internet may be very limited for small and medium enterprises. The question of MOOCs’ impact on emerging economies is thus directly related to the question of accessibility – “who has access to MOOCs today?” MOOCs can therefore not simply be presented as a universal solution for either education or vocational training in developing countries.

Coursera staff and MOOC providers mention the need to create a “clear track to employability” through MOOCs. Given MOOC’s only very recent appearance, their legitimacy and certification need to be further explored to provide a clear benefit in employability.

Universities see MOOCs as a promising possibility to better address the needs of developing countries, for example, by creating partnerships with educational institutions in developed countries to develop MOOCs that specifically address the needs of developing regions, such as public health or agricultural technology. Other motives are at play as well – prestigious universities (or professors) may attempt to publicize their name and “brand”, or to avoid being “left out of the game” if MOOCs do prove to change higher education irreversibly in the future. This, however, does not imply that educational institutions’ interests in pursuing MOOCs cannot be harnessed for national development. MOOCs as they are today do not really address barriers to access, and they seem to give more education to those who have already benefitted from a higher education, and better employability skills to those who are already employed.