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Why MOOCs Keep Your Skills Sharp


In higher education, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) are all the rage, with some going so far as to say they are the future of learning.

While MOOCs will probably never replace the undergraduate seminar, late-night dorm room cramming session, or rousing game of beer pong, even skeptics agree MOOCs are highly effective for technical training.

One firm believer in the viability of MOOCs as a cool tool for professional development is Jeremy Osborn, long-time online educator and academic director for Aquent Gymnasium.

Aquent’s Director of Content Strategy, Matt Grant sat down with Jeremy to talk about MOOCs, what makes them so interesting, and how Aquent is using them.

So, Jeremy, what is a MOOC?

MOOC is the acronym for Massive Open Online Course.

What do you mean by "open"?

Well, there are actually several ways that MOOCs can be open. For example, some MOOCs allow students a lot of input on what and how the course gets taught. In that model, students are essentially teaching each other.

More commonly, however, "open" means that the course is free and open to anyone with internet access.

How do MOOCs in general differ from other online educational options?

The main way that MOOCs differ is in their “massive” size. When Stanford offered an introductory course on artificial intelligence back in 2011, it attracted around 160,000 students. The largest MOOC to date, Udacity’s CS101, had over 300,000 students enroll. No physical classroom could hold that many students!

So how is Aquent using MOOCs?

A lot of the MOOCs out there, especially those offered by big universities, tend to be fairly high level: Intro to AI; Intro to Computer Science; Intro to Mythology.

By contrast, we're focusing on using MOOCs to teach very specific skills to very specific groups of people. For example, our first course, "Coding for Designers," is intended for experienced print designers who are getting into digital design but don't know much about HTML and CSS.

That is, we're not teaching "Web Design 101" or "Introduction to Design." Instead, the course content assumes that people already understand the fundamentals of design, that they already know how to use applications like Photoshop, and, frankly, that they are working designers who may have already designed web pages.

What we want to do is offer courses that build on that kind of experience and help people learn essential skills that will make them more effective in the work they are already doing.

Why did Aquent decide to start offering MOOCs?

Clients work with Aquent, in part, because they are having a hard time finding people with the skills they need. In many cases, the reason people don’t have these skills is that the skills needed are pretty new.

Think about it. Smartphones have only been around for six years or so. iPads have only been around for three. That means that if you got out of design school, let's say, five years ago, you might not have learned anything about developing for mobile and you certainly didn't learn anything about designing for users who were moving between multiple screens every day.

At the same time, we know that there are a lot of talented designers and developers out there who could take advantage of new technologies and design for multiple devices if they only knew how. That’s why we started offering MOOCs. We wanted to teach people how to do new things.

What makes Aquent's MOOCs different than other MOOCs out there?

I believe it’s our connection to the real world that makes our courses different and actually better.

We not only talk with individual customers regularly about their needs and the skills gaps they are facing. We also conduct ongoing research—including surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups—with subject matter experts in different fields to find out where there are skills shortages right now and where we’re likely to run into them in the future.

This research helps us decide which skills to focus on and which courses to teach. But the connection to the real world doesn’t stop there. Remember, we’re trying to teach people how to do new things so that they can then turn around and do them for their clients.

For this reason, we not only make sure that the curriculum itself is very practical, very “how to,” but we also incorporate assignments that allow students to put their newfound skills into practice. In our upcoming course on responsive web design, for example, students will not only learn the basic principles of this approach, they will also be asked to create their own, working responsive site. This means that at the end of the course, students will have something they can show people that proves they’ve actually acquired a new skill they can use.

I believe that’s a lot more meaningful than a certificate of completion or something like that (and, by the way, many MOOCs don’t even give you that!).

Final question: What role will MOOCs play in training/professional development in the future? Are they just a fad or are they here to stay?

MOOCs might not be the best method for teaching some subjects. And there are things that can happen in a classroom or a lab that you can’t really pull off online.

Still, I think MOOCs are here to stay because they are a relatively simple way to teach a lot of people simultaneously. As long as there’s a web and people who want to learn skills that they can reasonably try out in their own homes—skills like coding, for example—MOOCs will have a receptive audience and a place in training and development.

Thanks for speaking with me, Jeremy!

You’re welcome! And if people would like to learn more about Aquent Gymnasium, they can visit the site.

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