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Perceived value of MOOCs in Europe and the USA’s job markets

Can Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) serve as tools for upskilling in the 4th Industrial Revolution, highlighting benefits and disparities among learners?

In response to the demand for upskilling and reskilling brought about by the 4th Industrial Revolution, not only those within the workforce but also policymakers are increasingly focusing on online educational resources. The appeal of these resources stems from their flexibility in terms of time and their low, sometimes even non-existent, cost, making them ideal solutions to the urgent need to adapt to a rapidly evolving and competitive labour market. However, the benefits of enrolling in and participating in such courses can vary significantly among individuals. The increase in learning and the opportunity for skill recognition may not be evenly distributed amongst learners.

This research discussed this phenomenon in a piece titled “The Perceived Labour Market Value of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Europe and the USA“, co-authored with Sonia Bertolini. The research centred on a specific kind of online educational resource: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These resources garnered significant media attention and high expectations upon their initial launch in 2012. Furthermore, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic reignited interest in such online educational platforms.

The growing importance of skills

The research concentrated on the social implications of the widespread global proliferation of MOOCs. Among numerous facets, one of the topics contemplated during the study of MOOCs was their potential as new, flexible, and cost-effective resources for lifelong learning. In particular, I assessed their utility as an expedient tool for upskilling and reskilling the labour force.

Indeed, a prevalent narrative suggests that the complexity and rapid evolution of productive systems, set against the backdrop of the 4th Industrial Revolution and increasingly competitive labour markets, necessitate a workforce possessing superior skills to those currently prevalent. This requirement includes both technical and soft skills. 

According to Cedefop, 85% of jobs in Europe require at least basic digital skills. However, 6 out of 10 people lack basic ICT skills or have no computer experience. Moreover, worryingly, 16% of EU adults possess skills that risk becoming obsolete due to technological change. Consequently, many adults are ill-equipped for emerging jobs and particularly concerning is the fact that lower-educated workers—those most in need—tend to participate in lifelong learning activities less frequently than their more qualified counterparts.

The contribution of MOOCs to upskilling the labor force
Credit. Midjourney

But how can workers acquire these skills?

In this context, MOOCs have frequently been promoted as a highly convenient tool for upskilling and reskilling the labour force. Some observers have championed digital technologies in education as a solution, offering flexible and cost-effective resources for lifelong learning. However, the reality is more nuanced than this.

To gain a deeper understanding of the potential contributions of educational digital technologies, particularly MOOCs, this research explored the perspectives of individuals who had registered on various MOOC platforms over the past few years. Participants were questioned about the extent to which they felt they had acquired skills through these courses, the types of skills they had developed, and whether these skills had enhanced their career prospects.

For many…but not for all

In summary, MOOCs provide tangible benefits for work: individuals who have taken these courses have acquired both technical and soft skills at a low cost. However, this advantage is not universal: those who tend to benefit the most are often those less in need, specifically professionals with higher levels of education who are already employed in qualified roles.

Moreover, the accounts we collected raise a significant concern: the long-term private and public support for these resources could shift the burden of responsibility solely onto the individual. This could result in each worker becoming exclusively responsible for their training, pursued at their own expense and outside of working hours. This scenario may adversely affect women and their attempts to balance work and life.

The critical role of non-formal learning in the 4th Industrial Revolution

Research on these non-formal types of lifelong learning, such as MOOCs, is significant because trends suggest a future blurring of boundaries between formal and non-formal training, training in school and at work, as well as offline and online learning. Additionally, an individual’s life course no longer adheres to standardized paths that separate education and work periods. Consequently, resources such as MOOCs will play a pivotal role in shaping the lifelong learning trajectories of younger and older adults.

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Journal reference

Goglio, V., & Bertolini, S. (2021). The contribution of MOOCs to upskilling the labor force. Journal of Workplace Learning33(7), 561-574. https://doi.org/10.1108/JWL-10-2020-0159

Valentina Goglio is an Assistant Professor of Economic Sociology at the University of Turin, Italy. Her research interests lie at the intersection between education and the labour market. Recently, her work has been focused on the social implications of digital technologies on higher education and labour. She was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow with the project MOOC_DaSI, a visiting postdoc at Stanford University, and previously worked at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.