Newswise — RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Many employers are still unfamiliar with massive open online courses, called MOOCs, but once they learned about them, they generally viewed them positively for recruiting, hiring and training employees, according to a new study by researchers at Duke University and RTI International.

The study, funded by the Gates Foundation, is the first to evaluate employers’ knowledge, experience and attitudes toward MOOCs. MOOCs are free online courses with unlimited participation offered through the internet.

“As MOOC companies expand their clientele base, companies are logical places to recruit to provide skills to the workforce,” said Keith Whitfield, Ph.D., vice provost for Academic Affairs, Duke University and the principal investigator. “There are a number of anecdotal reports of MOOCs being used to enhance workers hiring and promotion prospects but virtually no hard data.”

Researchers from Duke and RTI surveyed almost 400 North Carolina employers between November 2013 and January 2014. A human resources professional from 103 organizations responded to the survey and 20 also participated in interviews.

“We were interested in exploring how employers viewed MOOCs in terms of whether they would make a difference in hiring decisions or how they might be used for recruiting talent,” said Laura Horn, RTI’s director of postsecondary education research and the RTI site principal investigator.

Although only 31 percent of participants had heard of MOOCs at the time of the survey, once they read a description, most were very receptive to the possible use of MOOCs in recruiting and hiring decisions. And they were especially positive toward their potential use in professional development training.

“These online courses have quickly grown in popularity in the past couple of years, but there hasn’t been any research showing how employers view MOOCs,” said Alexandria Walton Radford , Ph.D., program director in postsecondary education at RTI International and the study’s director. “We found that there’s still a ways to go before most employers know about the availability of these classes, but once they learn of them, they see their potential, especially for professional development purposes.”

While only one organization had used MOOCs for recruitment at the time of the survey, 57 percent said they could see their organization using MOOCs for recruitment in the future. Employers in business and communications, technology and manufacturing fields were particularly likely to foresee tapping into MOOCs for recruitment purposes.

In addition, almost three-quarters of employers surveyed indicated that job applicants taking job-related MOOCs would be perceived positively or very positively in hiring decisions. Organizations working in business and communications as well as in education were especially likely to view MOOCs highly when selecting applicants.

“If [an applicant] is trying to educate themselves, it says something about the individual. [It shows that individual wants] to stay on top of what is going on in their field…,” explained one of the employers interviewed.

As for using MOOCs for existing employees’ professional development, the study found that 7 percent of employers were already using MOOCs for this purpose, 5 percent were already considering doing so, and another 71 percent could see their organization doing so. This high level of receptivity occurred across industries.

“We need to know more about what courses appeal to companies and how they fit into existing opportunities for continuing education,” Whitfield said.

“Given the rapid expansion in the number of MOOCs and the growing awareness in how MOOCs might play a role in workforce training, we are pursuing funding for a nationwide study of employers to determine their receptivity and use of MOOCs,” Horn said.

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