MOOCs—massive open online courses—hit their stride in 2012: That was the year that Coursera was established, partnered with more than 30 universities, and reached more than 1.5 million students, according to the New York Times. The same year, edX, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT, launched—and registered 370,000 students in its first offerings.

MOOCs were, and still are, a way to offer access to higher education to the masses. Many MOOCs are offered free of charge, and anyone—well, anyone with an Internet connection—can join. MOOCs have evolved during their short existence: Some require tuition fees; some are part of nanodegree or certificate programs; some are part of corporate eLearning or mass marketing programs.

Learning Solutions Magazine asked five leaders in the arenas of eLearning, MOOCs, and academia for their thoughts on where MOOCs are headed and whether—and how—they might be useful in corporate eLearning. We’ve gathered (and edited) their responses.

Will MOOCs be incorporated into corporate eLearning to a greater extent?

Bahaa Gameel, assistant professor of journalism and media studies at the University of South Florida–St. Petersburg, sees a role for MOOCs for connected individuals, inside or outside of corporations, who are looking to improve their skills. “MOOCs provide them with unique opportunities to do so. They help individuals take online courses in different fields for free or at low cost and offer courses from great programs and universities.”

George Siemens, executive director of LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas–Austin, goes even further, envisioning MOOCs becoming part of training within corporate eLearning programs. It’s already happening, he said. Describing a partnership between Boeing and edX, Siemens said: “What Boeing is doing with their combination on edX with MIT is, they’re putting up to 1,500 engineers through some advanced design courses they wouldn’t have access to previously.” If they’d sent those engineers to training with the MIT instructors in any other format, Siemens points out, it would be far more expensive. “When you have a large organization that has thousands of employees, being able to instruct via a MOOC has significant benefits in terms of the quality of instruction that’s being delivered,” he said. “Rather than bringing someone from MIT to teach your engineers directly on your site, a MOOC allows a large number of them to interact with the faculty member remotely.”

In addition, Siemens sees a role for MOOCs in marketing and knowledge sharing, say, for an open-software company. There’s value in using MOOCs for “teaching anyone how to use your platform, tools, or products.”

Finally, Siemens sees opportunities for small companies to inexpensively provide advanced skills training to employees via MOOCs.

Not all embrace MOOCs so enthusiastically. Ellen Wagner, vice president of research for Hobsons, an educational software company, and Allison Rossett, professor emerita of educational technology at San Diego State University, point to the broad openness of MOOCs as a reason that their usefulness in corporate eLearning might be limited.

Noting the availability of structured, free content, Wagner said, “Why wouldn’t companies want to use MOOCS? Well, one really good reason is that, if the content isn’t the right content for what you want your corporate learning to do or drive, then why would you bother using a MOOC? Why would you bother managing someone else’s MOOC for your learners—unless there were a specific value-add coming back to your organization?”

Rossett sees a lack of intersection between the strengths and goals of MOOCs and the objectives of much corporate eLearning. “MOOCs transcend boundaries; they allow wisdom, smarts, with messages to go beyond conventional boundaries. You can deliver to people of different ages, people in different locations, and people with different economic needs—but that’s not what corporate learning is about. … I think more important to corporate learning right now is accountability and personalization, and MOOCs are not good at those things.”

She emphasized the lack of accountability that often accompanies openness: “A MOOC is very broad-brushed and not particularly good at checking whether Mary or Jorge has done it. You’re better off with the Khan Academy approach, which is very much about personal and individual and metrics and a set curriculum. They set out objectives; they match content and presentation; they match assessment to the content, the flow of expected objectives, and they can measure people on that. That’s much better for learning software or even basic skills than a MOOC.”

Gameel raises the question of digital readiness. “There is an assumption that anyone with Internet access can learn from MOOCs. However, individuals’ level of engagement with information and communication technologies (ICT) is one of the factors that determine their readiness for online learning. Therefore, corporations should exert enough effort to make sure that their employees are trained to use ICT efficiently before expecting them to learn and benefit from MOOCs.”

Do MOOCs offer anything of value to corporate learners?

Wagner and Gameel emphasized the openness, flexibility, and free or low-cost content as benefits to corporate learners. “[The] MOOC format makes it easier for individuals to benefit from them and explore different fields that learners might have little knowledge about,” Gameel said.

Wagner hedges a bit, stating that “MOOCS are a great low-risk way of exposing people to new content,” but adding, “It really depends on the learning goal to be met by the resource at hand,” and mentioning the low completion rates of many MOOCs.

Stephen Downes, senior research officer for learning and performance support systems at the National Research Council, Canada, points to the flexible format as a way to provide performance support or personalized learning: “When we think of a MOOC, we typically think of a course that you start at the beginning and take step-by-step until you get to the end. This is indeed a way to use MOOCs to support learning. But because the course is open, it is useful for much more than formal training. Any point of the MOOC may be accessed at any time, allowing staff to return to any point in the course. This provides excellent point-of-need performance support, especially if the course is well indexed or comes with a strong search function.”

Downes suggests that corporations can use MOOCs to educate beyond the walls of the company: “A MOOC helps staff extend [educational] capacity beyond the corporation—to current and potential clients—reinforcing promotional material, proposals, or analyses with material drawn directly from the MOOC. A well-designed MOOC will be developed with this sort of function in mind, offering not only content and information, but also direct access to business process functions.”

Siemens, too, offers a broad perspective that looks to future applications of MOOCs that are only beginning to be imagined or realized: “Companies can use them for a range of benefits to develop their staff skills, to market and promote their products, services, and so on. The conception we have of MOOCs right now is quite narrow, compared to the way I’m starting to see some corporations use them.”

A strength of MOOCs that Siemens cites is access to areas of study that are not commonly available. “One of the opportunities here is that many of these topic areas [covered by MOOCS] are not well reflected in traditional university curriculum. So, if you’re somebody who’s working at John Deere or working at Boeing or Microsoft or wherever else, and you want to get up to speed on how neural networks work, chances are you probably won’t see a course in your local university continuing education program on neural networks—which means that, in order to get that kind of instruction, you have to have access to MOOCs.”

They also offer access to experts and expertly vetted and curated content. Siemens describes a key function of MOOCs akin to the role of a printed textbook—but more dynamic and easily updated. “How is it any different from a textbook or from a regular book? I can learn everything about math anywhere; the fact that someone has pulled these things together, who we trust, in an integrated structured way makes all the difference in terms of quality,” he said. “Learning is primarily a coherence-forming process. When we learn something, what we essentially go through is this period of understanding how one topic relates to another topic we understand, which things are false, and so on. Now, if we learn on our own, we can still get there, but the reality for many of us is that we don’t learn well on our own in that format because there’s so much room for error and inaccuracies to creep in. As a result, we turn to experts or we turn to coherent knowledge units so that we know that what we’re learning is vetted; we trust the source and the person who is teaching it.”

Certificates and “nanodegrees” via MOOCs

Several large MOOC providers, including Udacity, edX, and Coursera, offer digital credentials—certificates, nanodegrees, or badges—that learners can earn by taking a MOOC or a series of MOOCs and completing assessments.

For Rossett, this moves the format away from “MOOCiness” and more toward a Khan Academy model of more tailored instruction. “The essence of MOOCs is that there is one or a few experts who produce a broad offering, usually experienced over the course. … It’s usually not a big commitment, it doesn’t demand a ton of you, it’s in the control of the learner more than it’s in the control of the instructor or professor. If you start moving toward credentials, you’ve got to have assessments, you’ve got to have people touching you, supervising, managing the people or the system—it becomes a very different type of story. … But it’s losing its MOOCiness. It’s becoming more personalized and Salman Khan-ish, more eLearning-ish, and less MOOC-ey. It depends: How MOOC do you want to be?”

Focusing in on potential for personal and professional development, Wagner hails the advent of credentialing. “If people can achieve the goals of the credentialed learning through a MOOC, good for them. The whole point is to find a pathway that works for each individual learner, right?”

Yet she—along with all the other respondents—raised questions about how valuable these credentials are right now. “Respectfully, at least for a while, while the outcome measures are determined, being able to demonstrate the skills learned in the MOOCs is probably more important than being able to show the certification that a MOOC has been completed.”

Siemens echoes that worry: “The value or certificate is really only useful if you trust the source that’s giving it, and I don’t think we’re quite at a point yet where Coursera or EdX or Udacity have the marketing or the reputational power of a traditional university—in fact, I know we are not there yet.” But he also believes there might be a solution, where learning occurs in a MOOC but assessment is done internally: “It’s something I’ve looked at before, the idea that we can teach globally but assess locally, meaning anyone can take the course, our focus then is on the assessments at a more local level.”

How might MOOCs evolve in 2017 and beyond?

Downes sees a bright future for MOOCs as a sort of learning infrastructure: “We think of MOOCs (and of online learning generally) in terms of web-based platforms like Udacity or Coursera. These platforms, however, are gradually being transformed into data services. What this means is that they can be defined as cloud technologies and integrated with other types of services. A MOOC or an online course would therefore function as a mechanism for scaffolding or facilitation around a set of content resources, including content created in workplace environments or training departments, or by course participants.”

Siemens also envisions MOOCs moving into new areas: “Now we see MOOCs being used for everything from a certificate that someone can get that will ladder into a master’s program; we’re seeing them being used for marketing and PR purposes; we’re seeing them used as customer support tools; we’re seeing them used as professional development resources for individuals within a company. I think it’s not entirely unrealistic to expect, over time, we’re going to see them being used for a range of other things. … I think any medium that has a significant audience at its disposal eventually becomes normalized as a teaching and a learning tool, and that’s what we’re going to see happen with MOOCs.”