, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 65–70 | Cite as

Employee Perspectives on MOOCs for Workplace Learning

Original Paper


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be considered a rather novel method in digital workplace learning, and there is as yet little empirical evidence on the acceptance and effectiveness of MOOCs in professional learning. In addition to existing findings on employers’ attitudes, this study seeks to investigate the employee perspective towards MOOCs in professional contexts and to further explore the acceptance of MOOCs for workplace learning. In a survey study, N = 119 employees from a wide range of enterprises were questioned with regard to motivation, credentials, and incentives related to participation in MOOCs. Findings indicate a high importance of on-the-job and career development learning purposes as well as a general interest in MOOC topics. Credentials are deemed necessary, yet their acceptance among the relevant stakeholders is considered rather low. Implications for design and implementation of MOOCs in digital workplace learning and for further research are discussed.


MOOC Workplace learning Vocational education Professional learning Employee 


In times of rapidly changing working environments, evolving job roles, and novel work practices, professional learning is becoming more and more important. With special regard to “twenty-first-century competencies,” learning for work must be a continual and highly individualized process (Eraut 2000; Tynjälä 2008) that can only partly be addressed in traditional training programs. Self-regulated learning at or near the workplace is gaining more and more in importance, especially when formal and informal learning can be combined (Ertmer and Newby 1996; Lehmann et al. 2014). Generally, contemporary workplace learning calls for a reconsideration of the form and design of learning environments, with a special focus on learning technologies (Noe et al. 2014). Against this background, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are considered a promising alternative in corporate learning, with a number of potential benefits, for example in terms of scalability, flexibility, and adaptivity (Tu and Sujo-Montes 2015). However, little is known about how MOOCs are perceived among the relevant stakeholders in the business context. Recent survey studies indicate that employers tend to be rather positive towards MOOCs (Radford et al. 2014) and that the open format is considered to be a specific trajectory in the corporate setting (Olsson 2016). On the other hand, most employers are unaware of their employees’ participation in MOOCs (Castaño Muñoz et al. 2016). Thus, it might be not enough to just look at employers’ attitudes to get the whole picture. When it comes to further exploring the acceptance of MOOCs for workplace learning, the employee perspective also has to be taken into account.

Digital Workplace Learning

The use of technology in professional learning can provide a plethora of solutions to support work and work-related learning activities (Littlejohn and Margaryan 2014). For corporate organizations, digital technologies enable the implementation of customized learning environments even on a small scale. Digital learning can be broadly defined as any set of technology-based methods and practices that can be applied to support learning and instruction. Emerging opportunities for digital learning include game-based learning, simulations, social networks, learning analytics, mobile applications, or MOOCs (Ifenthaler et al. 2015). Access to digital technologies changes learning at the workplace by providing cost-effective delivery modes, easy-to-access learning resources, and flexible learning environments. For example, mobile tools can “broaden the physical boundaries” of the learning and working environment. Social media can provide participation in community building. Simulations and game-based learning solutions are (pseudo-)realistic and especially motivating methods for the acquisition of skills (Tynjälä et al. 2014). According to Brookshire et al. (2011), additional benefits for employees include flexibility and control over their learning experience; the ability to take extra time with more challenging material; a safer environment with less pressure than classroom learning; the ability to learn anytime, anywhere; and adaptability for a variety of learning styles and needs. Challenges for digital workplace learning, on the other hand, lie in characteristics of the design of the training or training system, specific workplace characteristics, and learners’ dispositions, making the employee perspective even more important.

Currently, digital workplace learning is mostly implemented in the shape of formal learning environments (Noe et al. 2014). As learning at work commonly happens through social and intellectual actions that were not intentionally designed for learning, it supports pertinent activities like reflecting, interacting, collaborating, knowledge sharing, or networking in communities of practice where digital technologies can reach their full potential (Tynjälä et al. 2014). Hence, the real opportunity for digital technology in workplace learning is supporting informal learning and fostering enablers for lifelong learning. Despite the number of benefits identified, little research has been conducted on digital workplace learning and on how digital technologies can bridge formal and informal learning at the workplace.

Corporate MOOCs

MOOCs are online courses with free and open registration, allowing unlimited participation via Internet. Two major categories of MOOCs are distinguished on the basis of their different pedagogies: connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) and extended MOOCs (xMOOCS). cMOOCs focus on providing interactive learning environments, encouraging discussions, social network and blog engagement (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WorldPress, Blogger), creativity, peer assessment, and autonomy of educational objectives. xMOOCs concentrate on a traditional cognitive-behaviorist approach of content delivery and knowledge transfer through lecture videos, integrated quizzes, and short tests (White 2014).

MOOCs are a growing element in higher education. The advantage of reaching large numbers of learners worldwide is especially attractive for universities and institutions (Ifenthaler and Schumacher 2016). Class sizes usually range from a few hundred to one hundred thousand students enrolling in the courses provided by large universities via platforms like Coursera, edX , Udacity, and KhanAcademy (Li et al. 2015). Likewise, MOOCs offer a wide range of options for professional and lifelong learning (Kalz 2015). They can be used to qualify people who did not have access to higher education before, as well as to provide employees with skills and qualifications relevant to their current jobs, or for future career development.

Corporate MOOCs differ from the academic MOOCs: (1) They are mostly limited to employees, (2) they are open only within the organization, (3) they may include face-to-face elements (e.g., discussions) if colleagues are co-located, and (4) they may include custom-built content if the topic requires it. From an HR perspective, corporate MOOCs can provide a flexible, scalable, and therefore cost-effective means of training that allows the contents to be tailored specifically to organizational needs.

Purpose of the Study

The potential of MOOCs for workplace learning has not yet been researched extensively. A recent study showed relatively low awareness of MOOCs among employers. However, once the employers understood what they were, they identified potential for vocational education and workplace learning (Radford et al. 2014). Therefore, the purpose of this research is to further explore the acceptance of MOOCs for workplace learning. Specifically, this research focuses on the perspectives of employees with regard to motivation, credentials, and incentives related to the participation in corporate MOOCs, leading to the following research questions:
  1. 1.

    For which learning purposes would employees use MOOCs? (RQ1)

  2. 2.

    Which MOOC topics are of interest for employees? (RQ2)

  3. 3.

    How important are credentials and incentives for employees when participating in MOOCs? (RQ3)



Design and Participants

The study utilized a survey research design that considered the purpose of the study and the access to potential participants. The principle means of data collection was an online survey, which was conducted in April 2015.

In total, N = 119 employees (51 % female, 49 % male) participated. Their average age was 35.66 years (SD = 11.93, Min = 20, Max = 65). Thirteen percent were employed in a small enterprise, 30 % in a medium-sized enterprise, and 57 % in a large enterprise. Thirty-three percent were employed in the engineering industry, 16 % in the financial sector, 15 % in wholesale, 9 % in IT, 8 % in education, 3 % in public service, and 16 % in other sectors. Sixty-one percent of the participants reported an annual salary of up to 40,000 €, 33 % earned between 40,000 € and 80,000 €, and 6 % earned more than 80,000 € per year. The self-reported competencies for using computers and software in general (88 %) as well as Internet applications (85 %) were relatively high.


The survey instrument was developed and validated by the researchers of this study. A pilot test was used to assess the accuracy and clarity of items and instructions of the instrument. Experts established content validity by reviewing the items and suggesting further improvements. The group of experts consisted of educational researchers with a specific focus on educational technology and workplace learning. The survey consisted of seven sections with acceptable reliability (see Table 1 for reliability coefficients): 1. ICT competencies (2 items), 2. Motivation to participate in MOOCs (4 items), 3. Online learning in the organization (5 items), 4. Credentials for participation in MOOCs (7 items), 5. Incentives for participation in MOOCs (5 items), 6. Interest in MOOC topics (12 topics), and 7. Demographic information (7 items). Most items were answered on a five-point Likert scale (5 = strongly agree; 1 = strongly disagree). It took approximately 15 min to complete the survey. Table 1 shows examples of items for the seven sections of the survey instrument.
Table 1

Sample items of the survey instrument (translated from German)



ICT competencies

2 items

Cronbach’s alpha = .817

I feel competent using desktop applications.

I find it easy to navigate the Internet.

Motivation to participate in MOOCs

4 items

Cronbach’s alpha = .709

I would like to participate in a MOOC for personal learning purposes.

I would like to participate in a MOOC for professional learning purposes.

Online learning in the organization

5 items

Cronbach’s alpha = .589

My organization hosts an e-learning platform for workplace learning.

I would rather use MOOCs than the organization’s e-learning platform.

Credentials for participation

7 items

Cronbach’s alpha = .825

It is important to receive a certificate for participating in a MOOC.

MOOC certificates reflect my knowledge and competencies.

Incentives for participation

5 items

Cronbach’s alpha = .631

A monetary bonus from my organization would motivate me to participate in MOOCs.

Paid leave would motivate me to participate in MOOCs.

Interest in MOOC topics

12 topics

Cronbach’s alpha = .763

Topics included languages, presentation, career planning, management, etc.

Demographic information

7 items

What is your current position in the organization?

How many employees does your organization have?

Data Analysis

All data stored data on the survey platform was anonymized, exported, and analyzed using SPSS V.22. Given the limited space allowed for this paper, not all data could be reported. Initial data checks showed that the distributions of ratings and scores satisfied the assumptions underlying the analysis procedures. All effects were assessed at the .05 level. Effect sizes were reported where appropriate.


Since 2012, the N = 119 employees of this study had participated in M = 1.53 (SD = .76, Min = 1, Max = 4) MOOCs.

Learning Purpose of MOOCs (RQ1)

Table 2 shows descriptive statistics and zero-order correlations of learning purposes for using MOOCs: (1) personal, (2) social, (3) on the job, and (4) career development. A strong positive correlation was found between on-the-job (M = 4.28, SD = .82) learning purpose and career development (M = 4.13, SD = 1.10) learning purpose (r = .719, p < .001).
Table 2

Descriptive statistics and zero-order correlations of learning purposes for using MOOCs






1. Personal learning purpose


2. Social learning purpose



3. On-the-job learning purpose




4. Career development learning purpose



















** p < .01, *** p < .01

Further analysis revealed significant differences between learning purposes of MOOCs. On-the-job learning purpose (M = 4.28, SD = .82) was rated higher than personal learning purpose (M = 3.45, SD = 1.33), t(118) = 6.61, p < .001, d = .75, and social learning purpose (M = 3.42, SD = 1.20), t(118) = 8.63, p < .001, d = .83. Similarly, yet with lower effect sizes, career development learning purpose (M = 4.13, SD = 1.10) was rated higher than personal learning purpose (M = 3.45, SD = 1.33), t(118) = 4.67, p < .001, d = .56, and social learning purpose (M = 3.42, SD = 1.20), t(118) = 6.60, p < .001, d = .61.

MOOC Topics (RQ2)

The employees reported a broad interest in MOOC topics (see Table 3). More specifically, MOOC topics directly relevant for the job included communication skills (50 %), presentation skills (45 %), management (43 %), and coaching (43 %). Nutrition (52 %), languages (45 %), and sports (35 %) were additional MOOC topics of interest, but were not directly relevant to the job. As shown in Table 3, Chi-Square analysis identified significant differences between job- and non-job related interests for all topics.
Table 3

Frequencies (percentage) of interest in MOOC topics


Not interested

Interested and relevant for the job

Interested but not relevant for the job



23 (19 %)

40 (34 %)

56 (47 %)



55 (46 %)

53 (45 %)

11 (9 %)


Career planning

63 (53 %)

44 (37 %)

12 (10 %)



48 (40 %)

51 (43 %)

20 (17 %)



48 (40 %)

59 (50 %)

12 (10 %)


Desktop publishing

64 (54 %)

30 (25 %)

25 (21 %)



71 (60 %)

6 (5 %)

42 (35 %)


Corporate finance

57 (48 %)

45 (38 %)

17 (14 %)



51 (43 %)

51 (43 %)

16 (14 %)



56 (48 %)

43 (36 %)

19 (16 %)



80 (67 %)

2 (2 %)

37 (31 %)



53 (45 %)

4 (3 %)

61 (52 %)


** p < .01, *** p < .01

Credentials and Incentives (RQ3)

The employees expected to receive credentials for participation in MOOCs (M = 4.12, SD = 1.27). However, it was less important for them to receive credentials for their performance in MOOCs (M = 3.91, SD = 1.35), t(118) = 2.20, p < .05, d = .16. Employees saw only little value in MOOC credentials, because credentials for participating in a MOOC (M = 2.55, SD = 1.18) and credentials for performance in MOOCs (M = 2.83, SD = 1.15) seem to not reflect their work-related knowledge and competencies. In addition, the employees believed that their employers did not value credentials for participating in MOOCs (M = 3.12, SD = 1.28) or for their performance in MOOCs (M = 3.33, SD = 1.19).

Regarding incentives, the employees were conservative in expecting paid leave (M = 3.78, SD = 1.27) and monetary bonuses (M = 3.55, SD = 1.24) for participating in MOOCs. In order to investigate further drivers for participating in MOOCs, a correlational analysis was computed between the participation frequency of MOOCs and items related to credentials and incentives. The participation frequency of MOOCs was positively related to willingness to learn outside the workplace, r = .231, p < .01, as well as positively related to the prospect of receiving monetary bonuses, r = .195, p < .05. In contrast, a negative correlation was found between the participation frequency of MOOCs and the expectation of receiving a cerificate for participating in a MOOC, r = −.181, p < .05.

Discussion and Future Consideration

Corporate MOOCs have been identified as a valuable tool for businesses and organizations (Radford et al. 2014). However, only a few businesses and organizations are using MOOCs extensively, and there is still limited understanding of their potential as professional learning environments (Milligan and Littlejohn 2014). Moreover, there is little empirical evidence on the acceptance and effectiveness of corporate MOOCs.

The first findings of this study suggest that employees in businesses have similar reasons to participate in MOOCs as students in higher education (Berland et al. 2014). Content seems crucial, as there is a special interest in participating in MOOCs for “professional” purposes (on-the-job learning purpose, career development learning purpose). Corporate MOOCs thus are required to focus on specific work-related issues, which in most cases requires custom-built content and expert teachers from within the business context. Smaller, work-related content units, sometimes referred to as “learning nuggets,” can lead to more flexibility in learning, which then resembles a process of content curation.

Apart from that, the results indicate broad interest in various MOOC topics, not only those from the professional domain. This suggests a general interest in MOOC learning and a positive attitude towards MOOCs among the population surveyed.

When it comes to credentials, the results remain equivocal. On the one hand, employees expect credentials for participating in MOOCs. However, they also doubt their value. Moreover, employers do not seem to honor the credentials and certificates earned through MOOCs too much, as they are not linked closely enough to job-related learning. Here, the so-called “micro-credentials” could represent smaller sets of work-related skills or competencies more accurately (Ifenthaler et al. 2016; Jovanovic and Devedzic 2015; Mah 2016). As a consequence, the validity of current MOOC assessment practices could be called into question. For MOOCs in digital workplace learning, assessment procedures should be closely linked to work-related learning goals and thus go beyond mere multiple-choice questions in most cases. A more ecologically valid assessment might subsequently lead to a better acceptance of credentials by the relevant stakeholders (and vice versa), which is the most crucial factor for the integration of MOOCs in professional training programs.

Further considerations pertain to the instructional or learning design of MOOCs for professional learning. Here, it might be necessary to expand the rigid xMOOC model to suit the demands of digital workplace learning. Adaptive learning designs with flexible access points building on prior knowledge and a choice of content according to learner preferences can lead to motivational gains and a better learning experience. Additional motivational elements can help prevent monotony. Problem-centered assessments that require the development and externalization of mental models can foster links to the participants’ own professional contexts (Seel et al. 2013). A MOOC on value-based management aiming at both academic and professional learners currently being built by the Mannheim Business School will implement some of these ideas (

This study and its results have some limitations. First, the sample of this study must be considered small and non-representative. The findings are valid for generating further hypotheses, but care must be taken in generalizing the results to a larger population. Second, the participants’ lack of experience with MOOCs could result in biased conclusions regarding the overall importance of MOOCs for workplace learning as well as the expectations toward credentials and incentives. Third, such findings provoke questions requiring additional qualitative and quantitative research: Why, for example, is the focus on social learning opportunities in MOOCs rated lowest? What additional topics for MOOCs could be linked directly to workplace learning? Focus groups or in-depth interviews offer the opportunity for exploring such issues in more depth. Last, the rich information stored in MOOC databases could provide an additional layer of insights with regard to motivation and performance in MOOCs when linked to workplace learning (Ifenthaler 2015; Ifenthaler and Widanapathirana 2014; Pardos et al. 2016).

Further research on MOOCs may focus on in-depth learning process analyses, where these non-reactive learning analytics data are combined with in-situ self-reports on cognitive and non-cognitive (i.e., motivational, emotional, volitional) aspects of learning. Such process analyses can add to the much-needed learning science perspective on MOOCs (Fischer 2014) and may help to draw a bigger picture on how to make the most effective use of MOOCs in workplace settings.


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Copyright information

© Association for Educational Communications & Technology 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Learning, Design and TechnologyUniversity of MannheimMannheimGermany
  2. 2.Curtin UniversityBentleyAustralia

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