Q&A with Monika Hamori, professor at IE Business School, Madrid

Monika Hamori


The term massive open online course (MOOC) was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island to describe a course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), that was taken by a small number of paying students but also available to several thousand members of the general public, online and for free. The term has since been adopted to describe the education phenomenon of open access educational courses offered online, via the web, to unlimited participants, for little or no cost.

The MOOC phenomenon began in 2006 but hit the mainstream in 2012 with the launch of a number of large MOOC providers, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX, that often partnered with prestigious universities.

Some corporations, including GE, L’Oréal, and Marks & Spencer, for example, have also linked up with MOOC providers to enhance employee training. Yet, as recent extensive research into the use of MOOCs by Monika Hamori, a professor at Madrid’s IE Business School, reveals, corporations do not appear to be fully exploiting the opportunities that MOOCs offer for employee learning and development.

Here Hamori, following the publication of her Jan-Feb 2018 HBR article on the topicCan MOOCs Solve Your Training Problem?”, and drawing on data from over 28,000 learners in 127 countries, as well as survey and interview results, talks to Steve Coomber about what corporations could do to maximize the learning and development opportunities from MOOCs.


What motivated your research into MOOCs that led to the article in the Harvard Business Review?

MH: IE Business School launched the first MOOC in 2015, and introduced more than a dozen other MOOCs in the following two years. Initially, I collaborated with IE’s Multimedia Team to provide them with research-based best practices on producing online courses. The data generated from this collaboration led to my research into MOOCs.


And would you say that the rise of MOOCs has happened against a backdrop of employers taking less responsibility for organizing learning and development for employees?

MH: A shift towards the idea that training is the responsibility of the individual probably started in the 1980s, and in particular the recession in the US around 1981-82. Prior to that, in the developed world, certainly in the US, jobs tended to be lifetime jobs. Companies promised and delivered on internal promotion combined with a great degree of in-house training. After the 1980s, job security appears to be a thing of the past, and as employee loyalty decreases they begin to jump from one company to another during their careers.

There is evidence to suggest that the decrease in training provision has accelerated in recent years. For example, one study found that the amount of average training provided per worker in the UK declined by half in the period between 1997 and 2012. And this is formal training, usually face-to-face classroom type of training, core training that would be considered necessary for these employees. Over a third of the 1,481 employed learners that I surveyed had received no training from their employers in the previous 12 months.


If this is core training, how are companies able to pull back on providing this training?

MH: Well for a start, certainly in the 1990s but even today, many companies tried to solve this situation by poaching trained talent from other companies. But obviously that is not really a workable or sustainable solution. And also many companies shifted the responsibility for training and development onto the employees.


This trend for learning and development becoming the responsibility of the individual is reflected in your MOOC research findings.

MH: It was a finding that took me by surprise. Sixty per cent of the learners on MOOC courses that I surveyed were employed full-time or part time. The overwhelming majority of them (79%) were taking the MOOCs, learning job related content, without their employer’s knowledge or support – it was employee driven.


There must be long term risks in ceding control of employee learning and development to employees? Sub-optimal training, a mismatch of training goals, even a loss of productivity?

MH: Well we know that the commitment of these employees to the organization is much lower than the commitment of people trained by their company. When I asked learners what they want to do with the knowledge they gain from MOOCs those that are doing it without their company’s support have a much higher external focus, compared to the learners who are enjoying some sort of support (whether that is financial or time off).

Also, my hunch is that knowledge sharing in the organization is not as great with the unsupported employees, although I am still collecting data on that.

Also if you think about training provided by the employer, there is a lot of research on what  L&D professionals should do to make L&D optimal – before training starts, matching individuals to different training formats, different topics, based on the skills that the individuals need in the company. But if you leave this to the individuals it is unlikely to happen; individuals are likely to choose the topics they decide are most important for them.  And it was very obvious from my interviews that even though these people were fully employed, their individual learning objectives were often very different from their company’s objectives. What they were learning, how to set up a new business, for example, was often only marginally important for their current job.


In your HBR article you make it clear that you believe companies are not taking full advantage of the opportunity to use MOOCs. And you go on to suggest some ways they might optimize the learning and development value of MOOCs?

MH: There are a number of things companies can do. Companies can curate and support the MOOCs to different extents. An extreme example would be combining MOOCs with formal face-to-face training sessions. I spoke to one company manager who ran facilitating sessions before and after the MOOC course with his team, as well as asking them to work on topics that were covered in the MOOCs. At the very least my advice to an organization would be that they probably need some degree of MOOC curation. Managers can provide informal guidance. It is not a good idea to leave learners completely on their own without any sort of follow up or guidance.

Another good practice is to allow an employee to pilot the course or some modules from a course. Then the learner can fill in an evaluation about the MOOC, whether they would recommend the MOOC to colleagues, and what aspects, or modules they would recommend. This is very useful as it helps knowledge sharing and makes individuals accountable for their learning, especially if they are giving feedback via a shared platform.


Your research also uncovered some insights about motivating people to complete their MOOC studies?

MH: A lot of people who start MOOCs do not complete the whole course. When employers provide financial support for MOOCs, completion rates rise from 15% to 58%. There are two main options for MOOC learners – working for a certificate, which they get by passing a test – for which there is usually a small cost of about $90-100 attached, or just enrolling and taking the course. Course completion rates for the certificate option are far higher than the non-certificate group. That ties in with the finding that completion rates increase with employer financial support.

In addition I also found that including MOOC coursework in performance evaluations was another factor that increased the likelihood of course completion.

Employers can also provide support by giving time off for MOOC study.


And who do you think should take responsibility for dealing with MOOC training in organizations?

MH: My research suggests that it is line managers who tend to help implement MOOC-based training. They are in a good position to understand training needs and support learning during working hours. Interestingly, people in the learning and development department are often not that aware of MOOCs. The individuals who thrive under the organization supported format are very proactive individuals. Rather than waiting for the learning and development department to get the MOOCs to them, they go and find the learning opportunities and proactively bring them to the employer’s attention.


Briefly, for employers who decide to use MOOCs what are some of the benefits?

MH: My research suggests that there are a lot of benefits for organization that choose to use MOOCs, and I find it difficult to understand why more organizations are not using this format for learning and development.

If you start with the benefits. There is a cost benefit. They are very cheap compared with face-to-face training, for example.   They are very flexible, MOOCs can be taken anytime, from anywhere with a connection. Learners do not need to travel to a training venue. They do not need to interrupt their daily job. They can take a MOOC whenever it is convenient for them. There is a weekly rhythm to MOOCs. You do tasks on a weekly basis, but when in the week you do the MOOC does not really matter. And the content is very good, some of the most prestigious universities in the world are academic partners with the MOOC platforms.

In addition, there are thousands of courses to choose from. So even when it might not be economical for a company to provide specialist content to a small number of people in-house, they can still access that content via a MOOC. For example, most organizations do not provide pricing training simply because, even if there are 5000 employees there are probably only five pricing analysts. It makes no sense to develop in-house company training for this small specialist group. But it makes a lot of sense to use a MOOC.


You make a great case for organizations using MOOCs for employee training, or at a minimum supporting employees taking MOOCs and offering a degree of curation linking MOOC study to work objectives. Are there any potential issues that might make them think twice about using MOOCs in this way? 

MH: Evaluation might be an issue. MOOCs are very good at transmitting high quality content. However, evaluation is very difficult.  It is very hard to create an evaluation format that can effectively evaluate tens of thousands of learners. There are solutions that MOOC providers are experimenting with, such as peer evaluation or SPOCS –small private online courses, which are localised MOOCS, usually as part of blended learning approach with a mix of online and personal engagement with instructors, with knowledge tested by examination.

Another issue may be control and performance feedback. I spoke to one learner taking a MOOC unsupported. Although that individual came from a very learning oriented organization, their employer chose other formats because those formats had better learning diagnostics.


And maybe there could be an issue of self-selection – difficulties reaching the less proactive individuals who might also benefit from MOOC training?

MH: It is true that one striking and consistent finding from my interviews is that many of the people doing MOOCs were very learning oriented. Learning was very important for them. Also the employees most likely to get support for their MOOCs, either as time off or as financial support, were also the employees who received formal training from their employers in the past year. So MOOCs probably suit highly educated and learning oriented employees capable of self-directed training.


And lastly, employers often worry, especially in an age where employer-employee commitment ties are weaker, that their employees will use MOOC acquired knowledge to move jobs.

MH: On the one hand we have never seen so much separation in training between companies and individual learners. However my message to companies would be that it is also the case that the employees who do not receive support from their employees when taking MOOCs (and these employees will take the MOOCs anyway even if support is not available) are a lot more likely to do this than those who are getting that support.

For more insight in Monika Hamori’s work on MOOCs:

  • In print: “Can MOOCs Solve Your Training Problem?”, Harvard Business Review. January–February 2018 issue (pp.70–77).
  • And online:  https://hbr.org/2018/01/can-moocs-solve-your-training-problem

Thinkers50 associate Steve Coomber is a business and management writer and editor. He has written for the Times and other leading business publications. Steve has interviewed hundreds of executives, academics and other business professionals, including numerous CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives of Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies. He is the author or co-author of a number of books, including Architects of the Business Revolution, (Capstone, Wiley).

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