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Digital Intervention to UBC II: MOOCs for Professional Development and Organisational Learning

Recent trends indicate a new mode of corporate learning is on the rise with the involvement of higher education institutions, businesses, and intermediary tech organisations, exploiting Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to address the gap in advanced learning and training opportunities for working professionals. It is the rapid change in the skills demanded by the global markets, time restrictions, and cost concerns of the companies that makes the face-to-face form of learning experiences gradually redundant. While the initial hype of the MOOCs was built on how this mode of learning could change the landscape of higher education, the discussions are now getting stronger around the topic of what kind of opportunities the online platforms can offer to businesses and their diverse needs with training, recruitment, and branding.

This being the case, what is out there for European universities to better tap into the potential opportunities that comes with the expansion of business e-learning practices?

If planned and operated carefully, the benefits of cooperation with the e-learning provision to SMEs can be extensive for all the stakeholders involved. From the perspective of higher education institutions, designing MOOCs would not only encourage academics improve their own learning based on the most current needs of professionals in their fields, it would also help them enhance their classroom teaching and practice, as well as finding an outlet for their research and projects to reach new frontiers. Besides intellectual gains, the universities can generate alternative sources of revenue through their contributions to business staff training. In his recent article, Robert Ubell, the Vice-Dean of the E-Learning Unit at the NYU School of Engineering, states that MOOC providers mostly split revenue with their academic partners for the paid e-learning degrees they designed.

On a global scale, some of the most prominent examples of such provisions include online course modules offered by the most well-known educational technology firms and online platforms, such as Coursera, a platform founded by Stanford professors, and non-profit organisations like EdX created by MIT and Harvard.

Elaborating on the example of Coursera, the platform offers services to a number of enterprises, including to those based in Europe. The platform’s corporate e-learning product ‘Coursera for Business’ hosts learning content from 145 world-renowned universities that address rapidly evolving training and development needs of businesses from across the globe. The 1,800 courses available cover topics such as leadership, technology, data science, and other skills required by the fast-evolving world of business. Coursera e-learning programs address concerns of business leaders, regarding content, cost, and scale challenges of providing high-quality training to a distributed workforce. The platform offers services to European corporate clients, e.g. Air France, KLM,, Unicredit, and the French cosmetics company L’Oréal, who enjoys the online programs as employees gain expertise via customised content, which allow further specialised and accredited degrees.

Where do European SMEs and universities stand in the face of these developments?

When the profile of the aging workforce and increasingly digitalized work environments are considered, one would expect similar e-learning forms to be swiftly adopted in the European SME context. However, current practices show that the provision of online training programs to business staff is rather limited, and the involvement of European universities in the development of such learning arrangements is low.

The European Multiple MOOC Aggregator – EMMA project funded by the EU Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme is one of the recent pan-European attempts to showcase excellence in innovative teaching methodologies through large-scale piloting of MOOCs on different subjects. In their market research report, the project highlights SMEs and corporates as a primary target group, for the modernisation of workplace-based professional training. When looked into individual examples, TU Delft invests in the organisational online learning via DelftX, assisting companies e.g. Deloitte, Capgemini, and YACHT with on boarding, developing, and upskilling their workforce in the fields of science, design, and engineering. While the platform offers numerous free courses in cooperation with EdX, professional courses are paid, that generally last from 4 to up to 20 weeks, with enrolment costs varying between €100 – €1,100 based on the length and intensity of the programs. Similarly, the University of Naples Federico II offers tailor made online courses to businesses via FedericaX, an online course platform supported with EU funding. Finally, owned by the UK’s Open University, the platform FutureLearn cooperates with British universities to develop healthcare and business management MOOCs for professionals, as well as those in specialist areas such as analysis, finance, marketing and technology.

According to the 2016 research results of the EU funded BizMOOC project, both businesses and universities experience a number of challenges in exploiting digital opportunities for lifelong learning purposes. In the study, 70% of business representatives indicated they are aware of the learning model, however, only 34% of them confirmed they co-develop, or offer MOOCs for staff training purposes. While for businesses lack of awareness, lack of experience, lack of capacity, and concerns over intellectual property rights emerged as factors for not utilizing e-learning programs, for universities, major concerns stemmed from legal limitations for imposing fees for online courses developed, the challenges of reaching the target groups, receiving business input for content, maintaining industry partnerships, and the costs of multimedia production.

While not yet widespread, there has been support and incentives to reduce the challenges European universities face in designing MOOC programs. Berlin based online education platform Iversity provides expert support to universities with platform technology, course development, and communication to develop online courses. Earlier in 2013, Iversity and Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (Donors’ association for the promotion of humanities and sciences in Germany) introduced the competitive MOOC Production Fellowship to raise awareness about the potential of the digital technology in education. The award worth of 25,000 Euros was granted to 10 German academics who produced online courses according to a specific format and guidelines. While relatively limited in their number of partners compared to the US based platforms, Iversity currently cooperates with a range of businesses, NGOs, and universities from e.g. Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Despite the limited reach of MOOCs concerning both sectoral – except in IT and management – and geographical availability, the learning model shows presence among some of the good practice cases published as part of the State of University-Business Cooperation in Europe.

One of these good practice examples, Fibernamics, an international platform within the University of Minho allows its academic and business members unlimited access to its online training programs covering the themes e.g. digitalisation, materials and technology, and product design, complemented with certificate of participation.

The Corporate University of Gorenje founded by the European house appliance manufacturer Gorenje Group cooperates with Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) to design education and training programs, called ‘academies’ within the organisation. One important feature of these programs is that they mainly take place in a digital environment, e.g. virtual classrooms, e-learning internet portals, for two important reasons the program representatives have voiced: Cost reduction, and flexible learning opportunities they offer.


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