When Boston-based staffing firm Aquent recognized an HTML5 skills gap in their marketing, creative, and digital talent pool they created a MOOC. Known as the “Summer of Learning,” their course on HTML5 attracted 10,000 participants in August 2012 and was specifically designed to bridge their known skills gap and fill open jobs. Now, less than a year after that first offering, Aquent has placed more than 200 candidates in new positions and is building a course catalog of other MOOCs to offer free professional education throughout the year and better connect talent with employers.

According to Alison Farmer, Aquent’s VP of learning and development, the firm saw MOOCs as more than a passing fad. “We saw an opportunity to leverage technology to reach a massive audience and, quite possibly, to help someone find a job,” said Farmer. In the early days of web development, Aquent hosted a brick-and-mortar boot camp for people who wanted to learn how to build websites. Even then the course couldn’t scale, so they struggled to train enough new talent to meet the market demand. When the idea of creating a MOOC on HTML5 first arose at Aquent, they knew the technology was available to scale the program, but they still didn’t know if it would be viable. With an attitude of experimentation, Farmer and her team assembled the HTML5 MOOC, offering four webcasts, student assignments, an online forum, and a final exam.

One success story, of many

Eunice Corbin is an experienced designer, who, in her own words, “couldn’t find the time or money to keep up with peers.” After participating in Aquent’s HTML5 MOOC, Eunice commented after the class, saying, "I found an affordable way to grow without taking away too much time from my production schedule! Aquent played a major role in providing the resources I needed to get motivated and excited about learning HTML5, CSS3, and responsive design.” And six months after the course, Eunice let Aquent know that she was able to use the course as a professional springboard. “Aquent’s MOOC helped me develop my understanding of responsive design and HTML5. I’ve started working on responsive sites for a few of my freelance clients—and I’ve been on an aggressive knowledge quest ever since the class.” 

What made the difference?

Alison Farmer points to three factors that made a difference in the success of the Aquent MOOC:

  1. HTML5 is a hot topic—especially among Aquent’s client base. Aquent chose to begin with a MOOC on HTML5 based on quantitative and qualitative research among its clients. And, as with most buzzwords, the newest trends and topics also bring about confusion and a gap in knowledge. By offering a free course on HTML5, with activities designed to allow participants to practice their skills, Aquent was able to attract a vast audience who could put those new skills to work immediately.      
  2. Peer-to-peer interaction is key. Students participating in the MOOC watched a series of live webcasts throughout the course. Although their audio capabilities were muted during the webcasts, the learners could interact with one another via chat functionality and with teaching assistants who could answer questions and offer insights based on their own firsthand HTML5 knowledge and experience.
  3. Course forums enhanced the learning experience. For those participants unable to watch the live webcasts, they could view a replay and read the transcript of chat Q&As in the online course forum. Additionally, participants used the course forum to post assignments and receive feedback from one another and to post questions that arose during the coursework.

Although the student-to-instructor ratio was still quite high in the “Summer of Learning,” Farmer believes that the participants, especially very motivated ones, were still able to have a good amount of interaction with one another and with the instructor. Like many other experiences, the participants really got out of it as much as they put into it. “The participants who ‘hung in there,’ sharing projects and how they applied the course lessons to real work, were most successful,” Famer says.  

Farmer also lists many challenges that Aquent faced when putting the MOOC together. For one, they didn’t capture as much data in every step as they would’ve liked. Specifically, they could not identify drop-offs from the original course roster. The general communication approach around a MOOC is also challenging.

With a more traditional online course or face-to-face training class, there are implied norms, and most learners know what to expect. With MOOCs, on the other hand, much responsibility lies with the instructor to overcommunicate because many participants don’t intuitively know how to approach the content, pacing, and interaction within a MOOC. Recognizing the evolving nature of MOOCs and a continuous improvement approach, Farmer credits her team and the course instructors with embracing a “good enough” attitude.

“At this point, we see the MOOCs as an experiment to see if we can help people. We can’t beat ourselves up if it’s not perfect, but we’ll know it’s working if it’s good enough to help people get jobs,” says Farmer, “and we will make sure each MOOC is better than the one before it.”

Making a connection

John Moore, the interactive director at Fish Marketing in Portland, Oregon, has struggled to find talented coders and front-end programmers, and to him, the HTML5 MOOC offered by Aquent was an exciting game changer. Historically, many programmers are self-taught, learning from books or other resources. Having seen early success with placements from Aquent who are skilled in HTML5, Moore sees participating in MOOCs as something his company will definitely promote to all staff in the future.

Personally, Moore has participated in MOOCs and sees them as a great way to develop new skills or catch up on continuing education to build on existing skill sets. In fact, Moore and other hiring managers at Fish Marketing tend to look more favorably upon a job candidate who has completed MOOCs because it shows initiative, drive, and an eye toward the future. For those in the job market, Moore thinks it is wise to invest your time in MOOCs because they’re free or low cost, and the education you get out of the experience is priceless. For hiring managers and others responsible for staff development, Moore encourages you to seek staff keen on continuing education and MOOC participation because “your agency is only as valuable as your people and the skills they possess.”

The recipe for success

Because MOOCs themselves are still a relatively new approach to learning, Farmer doesn’t point to a single standard recipe for success. Rather, she believes “as long as you focus on the end goal and deliver high-quality instruction, learners are forgiving and show a fair amount of goodwill because they want the content.”

Moore sees MOOCs as a key link for employees who need to learn new skills for jobs that are in high demand and for others who may be looking for second careers. In Portland, where Moore is based, there is high demand for talented coders and programmers, but it can be a challenge to find good candidates. With MOOCs, Moore sees an accessible option for education that didn’t exist 18 months ago and is excited about the potential for people to learn new skills and find well-paying job opportunities. According to Aquent, the salary range for HTML5 developers is $62,000 – $98,000.

Above all, the instructor must be chosen carefully. According to a New York Times article published late last year, Udacity rejects about 98 percent of faculty who apply to teach. For Aquent, this means finding practitioners who know the tools inside and out, use them regularly, and can communicate how to use them effectively. The instructors also need to be comfortable with the fact that last-minute glitches can—and often do—happen. The key, according to Farmer, is to “go with the flow and focus on the best experience for the learners.”

Next up for Aquent is the Aquent Gymnasium, a series of ongoing professional education courses addressing emerging skills needed for marketing and creative professionals and based on trends and needs in the market. Looking generally at metrics, Farmer believes their courses will have a one- to two-year shelf life because they want to focus very specifically on the emerging and mission-critical employee needs. Indeed, the Aquent Gymnasium is sure to become a “place for betterment,” as Farmer puts it, giving learners the space and the place to challenge themselves in new and different ways.