Why Massive Open Online Courses Matter to Recruiters

The world of education, training, and professional development is being disrupted by MOOCs.

In case you’re not familiar with that acronym, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. Although they have been around for years, MOOCs have recently been heralded as the future of learning.

As the name suggests, a MOOC is first and foremost an online course. What makes MOOCs different from other online offerings is the fact that they are “open” — meaning that anyone can enroll, typically free of charge — and that each course tends to have hundreds to thousands of participants. For example, Stanford recently had 160,000 students enroll in its “Introduction to AI” MOOC.

These courses offer a free and easily accessible way for people to learn new skills or upgrade existing ones. As such, recruiters need to be aware of MOOCs because they will soon start to show up on resumes. Should you come across a resume that includes one or several MOOCs,  understand what that means. When evaluating the credibility of MOOCs on a resume there are several things to consider:

First, who is offering the course?

There are several prominent MOOC platforms. The best known — edX, Udacity, and Coursera — are associated with a host of major universities. This university affiliation means that the MOOCs offered through these platforms oftentimes feature the same content and the same instructors as the courses offered at the universities themselves.

Other MOOC platforms, like Udemy, allow anyone to create and offer a course. These MOOCs are frequently taught by seasoned practitioners rather than tenured professors and, therefore, are more practical and less academic. An example would be “Learn Python the Hard Way” as opposed to “Ideas of the 20th Century.”

By familiarizing yourself with the leading MOOC platforms, you can better assess, at a glance, the value of the MOOC listed in relation to the open job position at hand.

Second, what was the content of the course?

When evaluating a MOOC on a resume, the content of the course should be in some way associated with the position for which the candidate is applying. The content of MOOCs listed on a resume should reflect the candidate’s career goals and, ideally, highlight the practical, technical skills the course helped them acquire. For example, taking an introduction to artificial intelligence course may indicate a certain level of intellectual curiosity, but such courses do not help a candidate become a more effective database administrator or application developer.

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Recruiters should pay close attention to the specific skills the candidate was seeking to develop through a MOOC and question if these skills fit the requirements of the job at hand.

Finally, what does participation in a MOOC say about the candidate?

MOOCs can cover a variety of topics, some of which can be rather esoteric. For this reason, the fact that a candidate participated in a MOOC at all, whether or not the focus of the MOOC was a practical skill, suggests that the candidate is intellectually curious.

MOOCs can also indicate a significant level of motivation and initiative on the part of the candidate. The decision to enroll and complete the coursework is, after all, entirely up to them. In addition, some courses require that students have already achieved a certain level of proficiency as a prerequisite of participation; therefore, acceptance into a MOOC may serve as an indicator of a candidate’s skill level.

MOOCs also tend to have a relatively high attrition rate. Although the data varies, the consensus seems to be that completion rates of MOOCs hovers around 10 percent. If a candidate completed all the MOOC courses they listed on their resume, this can be a good indicator of how diligent and goal-oriented he or she may be.

It’s hard to ignore the hype surrounding MOOCs. It is equally undeniable that online education, especially in the form of MOOCs, can present job seekers with real opportunities to improve their marketable skills. Recruiters will benefit from educating themselves about this new form of online education, and understanding how MOOCs can provide additional insight into a candidate’s capabilities, qualifications, and drive to learn.

Matt Grant has a PhD from Cornell and more than 15 years experience in corporate training and marketing communications. Prior to joining Aquent, he was managing editor at MarketingProfs.com where he hosted the Marketing Smarts podcast and designed online courses for MarketingProfs University.


8 Comments on “Why Massive Open Online Courses Matter to Recruiters

  1. This is interesting. While education and knowledge-acquisition are valuable for their own sakes, in the world of recruiting, they are mainly useful to get you hired at the place you want to work. Consequently, I’ll find it relevant when I hear that lots of companies (particulary EOCs) are starting to hire loads of MOOC completers in various fields, as opposed to just (elite) college grads…


    “While knowledge may be power, it sure ain’t necessarily riches.”

    – Me, 2013

  2. Thanks for the comment, Keith.

    While I believe, as I said in this post, that there’s a lot of ways to look at a MOOC on a resume, I’m thinking that, at this stage of the game, it’s up to the candidate to make the MOOC meaningful by demonstrating what the MOOC allowed him or her to do.

    In other words, if someone actually acquired a new skill, or refined an existing skill, thanks to a MOOC, and turned around and applied said skill, then the MOOC meant something.

  3. Great article. Raises important questions. I recently wrote the following in a monthly newsletter I write which details the results of the Stanford AI MOOC course:

    Perhaps the whole question of education is moot..if we are about to leap into a Brave New World.

    This YouTube view of an alternate future of education, The Future of Education 2020 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gU3FjxY2uQ) is 10 minutes in length and, arguably, is worth every second.

    It starts with stories about innovations from 2009 to 2012 then continues with a series of speculations over the next 8 years that are all eye openers- if any one of them were to come to pass.

    One of the first stories, takes place in 2011, is an experiment in which a Stanford computer science professor, who annually teaches a classroom course in Artificial Intelligence to about 200 Freshman, decides to offer the same 10 week course online to anyone free of charge with no pre-requisite. His class of 200 was invited to take the course either way.

    160,000 people worldwide registered for the course. The online course experimented with unique ways of engaging the students to ask questions, ‘liking’ answers and helping each other.

    Of the 200 classroom students only 41 remained in class the 10 weeks. 159 took the course online with the 160,000 other students. The professor offered the same test to both the class room and online students claiming it was one of his hardest ever. His 159 online students had the highest pass rate ever and 23,000 passed the course.

    In those 10 weeks, that one professor taught more students than the rest of the computer science professors in the world. The 23k students that passed his course represents more students than most professors teach in a lifetime.

    If nothing else this piece calls into question whether an online education versus a campus experience is so easily dismissed when ‘qualifying’ candidates.

  4. Great article! I have heard that while MOOCs may not have everyone’s attention now — they will eventually offer some type of certification and then they will be truly competitive with university degrees.

    I would like recruiters to strongly consider candidates that have taken MOOC courses but I’m afraid they will continue to look only at degrees.

    The fact that MOOCs are free I believe we will see a tsunami of students move to that platform and forego paying debt of $80,000 for a degree.

    We are going to see a major upheaval in higher education. Just hope it will not take 20 years!

  5. Thanks for the comments, Gerry and Jacque.

    MOOCs are an interesting model for broadening access to higher education and that model is still maturing, which means that we are still far away from a MOOC-only degree replacing more traditional degrees.

    At the same time, when we are recruiting people for technical roles, we all know that college degrees can matter less than the specific skills that candidates have acquired and, ideally, mastered. For this reason, I believe that, when looking at MOOCs on a resume, recruiters should pay more attention to the skills taught than to the degree conferred.

  6. How employers respond to MOOCs is something we’re watching closely at MOOC News and Reviews. My personal theory is that it will be even more important than the question of whether MOOCs are accepted for college credit, which is what most of the attention is on right now. If employers start accepting a portfolio of MOOC certificates as an indicator of job readiness, then a certain number portion of students who are motivated to go to college for a job credential won’t have that motivation anymore.

    As for students communicating their readiness, ways of doing that are emerging in the form of portfolio sites that allow students to collect all their educational credentials in one spot.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  7. I agree with you, Robert. As soon as employers see MOOCs as significant in themselves, the whole college credit issue kind of goes out the window!

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