The following interview was conducted with Dan Pontefract, TELUS’ senior director of learning and collaboration. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are gaining a lot of attention across the higher, continuing and professional education spaces for their capacity to deliver learning opportunities to large numbers of students for a relatively low cost. In this interview, Pontefract discusses how MOOCs could be operationalized in the corporate world, and whether he sees corporations coming together to develop industry-wide open-learning opportunities.
1. Currently, MOOCs are being used to teach relatively advanced academic fields — from robotics to poetry. However, there is research being done into whether MOOCs could be used to teach introductory-level material. How do you see MOOCs working in the corporate sector?
Well, first of all, paying homage to my Canadian brethren who came up with the term MOOCs, I’m still not a big fan of the term. A Massive Online Open Course to me suggests that it’s a free for all. So inside the corporate sector, although I guess kind of where MOOCs are going, I believe that they just need to be coined something slightly different. In fact, I believe that companies perhaps are doing it and I can speak first hand that we are already doing it at TELUS.
So, I’ll just jump into the example because that way, it provides the context because I do believe that they can work; it’s just I don’t necessarily believe they should be called “Massive Online Open Courses”. So, we introduced something called the Lead and Grow Series at TELUS. And the Lead and Grow Series is sort of a concoction of formal, informal and social learning. And that’s really what a MOOC is in essence – where you sort of have a lecture, which might be coined the formal bit, and there’s some formal eLearning that might go along with that. And there’s interaction and discussion, informal and social kind of exchanges that ultimately lends itself, at some point, ideally, to some sort of credential.
So, our Lead and Grow Series is a topic where we pick a topic for about a six-week period and it’s open to the entire organization. So, what we do is, let’s say the topic is leadership or maybe the topic is products and services or the topic is customer service. We will gather several of our experts either in the field of the … particular domain outside of TELUS or inside of TELUS and we will sort of teach that topic over the six weeks through videos, through live webcasts, through interactive virtual worlds, et cetera. The curricula is then shared amongst others. There are sometimes activities and then there’s certainly this soulful online discussion that’s occurring pre- and post-, such that people can continue to dialog and/or hammer out what it is that we might be discussing. So, MOOCs in the academic sense — whether it’s the Courseras, or the edXs, or the Udacitys — they tie themselves to a platform, and I think inside the corporate sector, a MOOC can be working, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to a platform. You can use and concoct yourself a MOOC using several different technologies. Maybe you’re saying a web conference system for your web video/webcast approach. Great! Maybe then you have micro blogging that you can do live in-line chats. Great! Maybe you have a discussion forum where you have asynchronous threaded discussions happening pre- or post- event. Great! Maybe you have an LMS where you can start tracking the event so you know how many people are in and amongst it. Great!
So, that’s my recommendation, I think, and I do see that they can work, but:
(a) The name is not the greatest; and
(b) I think you can be agnostic.
From the technology perspective, whether it’s introductory, whether it’s intermediate or advanced — I think you can do it in the corporate sector, quite frankly.
2. Could most companies design their own MOOCs?
You have to have a little bit of gumption and to say, “Well, how might we teach a bunch of people all at once?”
So, back to the Lead and Grow example, we have four different instances over 2012 of these six-week topics and we had just about 5,000 people enrolled in these topics. So, you’ve got to ask yourself, well if TELUS is 40,000 people and we got 5,000 unique enrollments, that’s, to me, a MOOC. That’s a Massive Online Open Course. It’s free to TELUS; it’s open to anyone at TELUS. It ranged from a dimension of product and services, and leadership and collaboration, and customer service, et cetera. So, could companies do it? Well, why not?
You just need the gumption in which to take a look at “do you have the technology,” sure, but do you also have the wherewithal to promote it as something that will allow others to learn in its kind of open way? I say, sure. Why not?
3. Do you think that the learning outcomes from these kinds of programs would be worth the cost of investment — or the cost of creating these courses — for most companies?
I don’t think that TELUS as an example would go about creating a MOOC for robotics because, when a company like TELUS with 40,000 people, you’re just not going to get massive enrollment for that number of people taking robotics.
Hence what’s run is done in taking robotics to the masses of the global scale, that’s going to play out much better. But we can, certainly, from a topic perspective and getting people aligned through things like, “TELUS is very proud of the improvements we’re making in our customer service and customer-first model.”. Great; we can galvanize the organization around a MOOC-like topic because that’s something important to TELUS.
So, could other companies design [courses] and … can there be a return there? It does depend on what it is that’s on their corporate objectives or strategic priorities. And if they want to rally around that cause and the organization sees it as beneficial at the end of the day. So, again, it does depend, each their own. But there is, to me, no reason why an organization, particularly in the sizes that are like the TELUS sizes — so the 20-25, 30,000 plus — there is no reason why they can’t take this on.
4. Would a MOOC designed for one corporation be applicable to others? That is to say, would there be a TELUS MOOC, a Verizon MOOC and a Rogers MOOC? Or would there be a Telecommunications Industry MOOC?
I think, most of the time, a telecoms industry is going to be in competition with one another. There are times when we are in partnership but most of the time we’re in competition. And so, to me, when you’re talking about intellectual property access and then the like, it’s probably inappropriate to have an industry-specific MOOC. There’s just too much collateral that could be exchanged that might give one position or one organization an unfair position or leg up. It just, to me, it doesn’t make sense. Particularly, as I say, some of the secrets of the trade and so forth that might be exposed.
Could an organization like TELUS apply itself to a MOOC that is, maybe, conceptually nebulous? So, could it be on the foundation or principles of leadership or time management or Microsoft Office products — I’m not sure about that either. I think there’s a time and a place for individual MOOCs — i.e. me as a person, if I’m interested in Robotics, I would go to that Udacity course perhaps — but sort of rallying TELUS as an organization to go participate in external MOOCs on behalf of TELUS, as a TELUS team member or employee, and again whether it’s against our competitors or just out there in the open, in the wild, I’m not sold yet on that.
Might be contrary to some opinion out there, but I’m happy to send people off to do their degrees and their certificates and their diplomas at institutions where we will fund that. I haven’t been sold yet on whether we should be allowing our team members to openly and actively participate in a MOOC on TELUS-time.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value that MOOCs could bring to the corporate training world?
Well, at least from an internal perspective, I’ll speak on that front. Again, I think the term gets misrepresented, “massive online open course.”
I think basically what you’re getting at is: you have this opportunity to unify, culturally, your organization with a learning opportunity. And, whether that’s leadership or customer service or your priorities — whatever it is inside your organization — you can certainly unify your organization culturally by instituting a MOOC-like experience. So, I see no reason why an organization in size like TELUS or otherwise … doesn’t step up and start exploring and experimenting with this type of learning opportunity. It does a world of good when you can find a time in which you can unite your team members wherever they live, especially in this virtual world we live these days, to not only learn but to then begin building on the culture of engagement and the culture of collaboration.
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