Posted on 20-Aug-14

Over the course of the past 6 years that I've been involved in continuing education, the single most-often repeated request I've heard from continuing education students is the importance of convenience. After all, this is an audience which is typically balancing the sometimes competing demands of work, family and professional education. No wonder then that, for example, help desk calls when I was heading up Operations at spiked not only at the usual time (9am when people get into work) but also after 8pm at night – when dinner was over, the kids were in bed and it was time to hit the books. The calls continued clear through the weekend, with huge spikes whenever there was a 'hard deadline' where groups of professionals all faced the same (usually end of the month) deadline for completing their continuing educational requirements.

Over the past decade, the rise of self-paced training has dramatically transformed the continuing education landscape. You'd be hard pressed today to find classroom based continuing education courses in fields as varied as nursing, insurance and real estate. They've all moved online, usually accompanied not only by increased convenience but in most cases by significant price reductions over time. Yet despite this revolution, challenges remain. The most obvious being that while the smaller (1-3hour) courses have moved online, the longer, more substantive ones have badly lagged, with many 'entry level' education courses still firmly anchored to the classroom.

When you ask students (which I frequently did) to explain why they were comfortable taking the shorter classes online but only after opting for classroom based training for the longer material, the answer was almost always some variation on the theme of camaraderie and encouragement. Sure there was an element of wanting to have a real, live instructor to ask questions of, but there was a broader desire to be part of a group that worked together and motivated each other to make it through and successfully complete over the many hours it takes to complete.

This disconnect, the impersonal but convenient self-paced short course vs the communal experience of a longer course of study is about to see a big shift and the catalyst is the new breed of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Over the past 3 years or so, a number of platforms have emerged which, at least initially, focused on brining the best of the best college courses to a global audience. As those platforms have matured, they have become a launching pad for experiments that go well past traditional college courses and reached into the world of continuing education.

Let me illustrate this shift with a very current example. On August 1, 2014, The Linux Foundation launched "Intro to Linux" - formerly a 4-day, instructor-led, classroom-based course designed to develop entry level system administration competency – as a MOOC on the edX platform. The instructor led version typically served a few hundred students a year. In the first 6 months, 'Intro to Linux' on edX saw 250,000 registrations, of whom, 80,000 were actively taking the course in the first week after it became available. Registrations have continued at the pace of several thousand a week, from all over the world.

So what is it about this experience that is causing so many people to sign up for an extensive, 40-60 hour commitment when students have historically preferred synchronous instruction? It didn't take me long to recognize the 'secret ingredient': it was the community of students. Within a week of going live, there were special purpose discussion threads on the course discussion board that served both Russian and Spanish speakers. Despite having over a dozen volunteer Discussion Board Moderators deployed, we found that students were answering each other's questions faster than we could even read them. In many cases even identifying errata and sending us the required corrections. We've also seen students spontaneously arrange themselves into study groups, some in person, some virtual. In short, the sense of community has been astonishing, and the outcomes have been good – over 3,500 people had successfully passed the final exam within 2 weeks of launch.

By bringing the sense of community into the world of online continuing education, MOOCs have broken one of the last barriers to the great desire for continuing education options that fit into each person's busy schedule. It is early days yet but I, for one, am betting that this will be a trend we'll be hearing about for years to come.

All of this poses some interesting questions for training organizations and educational institutions – what has your experience been with the demand for and use of online courses? How do your participants satisfy their need for collaboration and networking? Does the formation of these self-organizing of online communities impact the educational outcomes?

Clyde Seepersad is a member of the IACET Board of Directors and is the General Manager, Training and Certification for The Linux Foundation. Prior to The Linux Foundation, Clyde was the Senior Vice President of Operations for Clyde has been involved in online education for nearly 10 years and recently launched the first fully online Linux certification exam. He holds an MBA from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.



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