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Massive open online courses emerge as corporate training option

Reinvention of learning management systems also bringing social UIs and mobility, said Bersin by Deloitte analysts.

LAS VEGAS -- Generally unpopular with users and now facing competition from massive open online courses, once-stodgy learning management systems are being reinvented with cloud, social and mobile technology, said Bersin by Deloitte analysts in a presentation at this week's HR Technology Conference.

"These things really grew up to help the training administrator and kind of make that person's life easier -- not necessarily the learner," said David Mallon, a Bersin by Deloitte research vice president who presented findings from recent surveys. "Most of us have a very love-hate relationship with these systems."

Nevertheless, 57% of respondents in the firm's recent poll of human capital management purchasers said they plan to buy some kind of human resources (HR) or talent management system in the next 18 months, Mallon said. Of those, 61% will buy a learning management system (LMS) -- the top choice -- with a plurality wanting it as part of a talent management suite rather than a standalone "best of breed" or in an ERP or human resources information system package. In addition, Bersin by Deloitte projects the global LMS market will grow 10.2% this year.

Bersin's take on the top five LMS vendors

In his talk at the HR Technology Conference, analyst Josh Bersin named the five market leaders in comprehensive learning management systems and summarized each one's competitive position.

  • Cornerstone on Demand
    Among the youngest and fastest-growing, yet well-established, this vendor is still building its global presence.
  • Oracle
    The ERP mega-vendor is pouring money into its Web-based LMS, Oracle Taleo Learn Cloud Service, which it acquired along with talent management vendor Taleo. The product has strong scalability features and the ability to create individualized portals.
  • Saba
    This LMS pioneer has a strong global presence and the most "industrial-strength," scalable platform for corporate compliance needs.
  • SAP
    The former Plateau cloud-based LMS, a compliance pioneer that was acquired with talent management vendor SuccessFactors, is "very, very carefully taken care of by SAP."
  • SumTotal
    An early e-learning vendor that is less well-known than it deserves to be, SumTotal excels at the middleware needed to connect with educational content.

Meanwhile, LMSes are shedding the outmoded designs that earned them their bad reputation. "The LMS is being reinvented," Mallon said, with highly flexible user interfaces, cloud delivery, and, increasingly, social media and mobility features that help deliver "learning at the point of need." The technology is also becoming more analytics- and big data-friendly, he said.

"The experience with LMS is changing as they become more learner-centric systems," especially in the K-12 market, which Mallon said contains some lessons in usability for corporate LMSes. He said the 50 or so typically cloud-based K-12 offerings are social and collaborative at their core and resemble consumer applications more than old-fashioned business applications.

Not just a bunch of MOOCs

Company principal and founder Josh Bersin devoted a long segment to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), advising the audience of mostly HR practitioners to give the technology a serious look as a new way to deliver career training to employees.

"The education industry is being disrupted because professors took it upon themselves to put their courses online, and that has spawned an enormously fast-growing space that is going to be enormously important to your job," he said.

Defining the category as "branded college courses at [a] low cost," Bersin explained that most MOOCs provide courses for free, but charge $30 to $50 for completion certificates. That's posing an especially serious threat to for-profit institutions -- such as Capella University and the University of Phoenix -- that are trying to grab a chunk of the corporate education market. "They are now getting interrupted by highly branded universities whose content is now being unleashed on the public market," Bersin said.

Two of the famous brands behind the trend are Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which partner in edX, an open source MOOC that Bersin said is strong in computer science and other technical courses -- some from other Ivy League schools -- and that offers free content development tools from Google.

The short list of MOOC platform providers also includes Coursera, which emphasizes business and leadership content from Rice University and the Wharton School of Business, and Khan Academy, an early player in science, math and finance education that Bank of America, for example, uses for personal finance courses for its customers. Another good source of technical education, Bersin said, is Udacity, which is unusual in allowing universities, such as Georgia Tech, to have their own brand of MOOC.

The four major platform providers were essentially founded to help universities put their content online, which Bersin said is a complex process involving many steps, from building content, to organizing it in the right order, to moderating it, creating communities, inviting people to take courses, and then tracking their progress.

"Most of these courses are video-based," Bersin said. "They usually have a talking-head professor, or they might have a writing-hand professor and you're listening to somebody talk."

MOOCs differ from most LMS-based courses in that they usually have a fixed start and end date. "You don't get to take it whenever you want," he said. "They're really content systems. They're not learning management systems." However, "speed-up, slow-down" features let students jump around sections.

Transforming corporate education

Bersin said he believes the growth of MOOCs is a reaction to the sharp rise in college costs -- a 1,134% climb since 1978, according to U.S. government figures.

"The demand for education is much, much higher than the supply," he said. "There's pent-up demand here in the education system that's fueling this market. The MOOC explosion is going to help the education industry, I think, become more competitive and more available and, in some ways, more democratized."

At the same time, more people are seeking affordable ways to advance their careers. "The career pathway is broken, and people coming out of college don't always have skills companies need," Bersin said. "MOOCs will help corporate education content get vetted and better organized."

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MOOCs could also drive innovation in the LMS industry, which suffers from a fragmented, dysfunctional market of small providers who develop and distribute content, according to Bersin. He said many of his clients express difficulty in finding great content that's relevant to their training needs; much of it is outdated. "The MOOC space is really going to help disrupt and improve that content market," he said.

However, companies that try to adopt MOOCs for internal training face a few hurdles, such as concerns over who else is participating online, Bersin said. Some might not want employees interacting with competitors, college students or people in other countries. "They may be in a totally different world than you," he said. "We're not sure yet how all that interactivity is going to work."

MOOC platform providers haven't created corporate versions of the college courses, Bersin said, though he singled out an up-and-comer, Udemy, for helping companies convert expert knowledge into user-friendly courses delivered from a service resembling the Apple iTunes store.

Early adopters are warming to the idea, however. Bersin said Yahoo made a deal with a MOOC to send its employees to online computer science courses for around $30 per enrollment.

Summarizing MOOCs, Bersin said they are very good for technical education today and [for] beginning to provide content on professional development and leadership. "Very much worth your time to experiment," he said. "I think employees will find this to be a great value add; a sort of engagement tool for your organization."

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