Professional development, free of charge

The massive open online course (MOOC) is changing the face of professional development.

Haven’t completed your annual continuing professional development time yet? No problem. In today’s world of abundance (see “A Peek Into Our Plentiful World,” September), a truly disruptive technology is here to help you. It’s all the rage in the teaching and learning markets and it’s called the massive open online course (MOOC).

Imagine university and highly specialized courses taught by world-leading professors, most often free and with none of the brick-and-mortar requirements of times past. Now imagine these open courses being taught without barriers — they can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, any time, without regard to course prerequisites or budgetary constraints. Courses usually follow a format similar to an in-residence offering: lectures and assignments with assessments performed by participants.

MOOCs have hit centre stage, thanks to high-profile pairings of top universities with online education platforms. For example, Harvard and MIT have joined forces with edX to create HarvardX and MITx. University of Toronto, McMaster University in Hamilton, University of Alberta, Yale and Princeton are a few more of the academic institutions partnering with online learning platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udacity and Udemy. What’s more, MOOCs are not limited to traditional academia offerings. Want to improve your Excel or photography skills? Take a look at LinkedIn’s recent acquisition,

Let’s not forget the “massive” part of the equation. MOOCs live up to their name. Coursera has more than 14.5 million participants with more than 1,000 programs, including an eMBA.

Of course, online learning isn’t new and companies have already embraced the convenience and flexibility of distance learning made possible by the Internet. However, many of the offerings are expensive and boring and let’s be honest — no one wants to listen to hours of digital lecturing, especially if it’s not going to add significant value to you or your team.

MOOCs are changing that. Born in the social media age, MOOCs are designed to inform in an entertaining, engaging and collaborative way. Perhaps more important, they teach specific skills that can be applied immediately. They are removing the educational constraints of the industrial age and providing the skills necessary to be successful in today’s knowledge age.

Over the past several decades, the corporate world has expressed concerns about how unprepared new hires are, calling for public school reform from kindergarten to postgrad school. As a society, we have been pushing our foundational educational institutes to become trade schools rather than teaching how to learn, communicate and collaborate. We say things like, “Congrats on your degree; what can you do with it?”

When it comes to developing an educated workforce, on-the-job learning is many times more successful in developing a forward-reaching team than classroom instruction. Just think about what you’ve learned over the past several years compared with what you learned completing your undergrad degree. “In short, a huge part of the so-called ‘skills gap’ actually springs from the weak employer efforts to promote international training for their current employees or future hires,” writes Peter Capelli in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.

Companies don’t have large budgets for employee training. This has been a contributor to the widening of income inequality. The free online courses provided by MOOCs are game-changers. You have access to acquire new knowledge that can improve your job and prepare you for future opportunities.

MOOCs provide low-cost, high-quality corporate training — a practical model for sustainable lifelong learning. So, as you take stock of your personal professional development for the year, you might just want to get busy with a MOOC.