What Coursera can teach corporations about doing learning differently

One of the emerging trends in the training and development field is the shift from “trainer” to “community manager.” Jane Hart does a magnificent job of distinguishing between more traditional views of training (We’ll figure out what content you need, create it, and then deliver it to you) to workflow-centric informal approach (You figure out what you need; we’ll make sure you have ways to connect to it.) I think the offerings available through entities like Coursera offer a glimpse into what could be available inside corporate walls if T&D functions could shift their thinking, and we could get away from a “completion” model to a “take what you need” model.I recently signed up for an online course on gamification, taught by Kevin Werbach, a Wharton School of Business professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The course is free through Coursera.org – and it’s one of 121 available. So far, I am really enjoying the course – and learning a lot on multiple levels. I’m  impressed by the ease of registration, the user interface, the course design, and the sophistication of the entire thing.

The course is FORMAL in structure – which seems to defy the definition of “social learning.” There’s a syllabus, recorded lectures, weekly quizzes, and assignments. It’s not a puff ball course – there are university students taking this course for full undergraduate credit, and the workload is estimated at 4-8 hours a week. You could be fooled into thinking this is “traditional” online learning. Oh, but it’s not.

However, here’s where the informal comes into play:

  • I’m one of hundreds or thousands taking this course from around the world with NO ONE MONITORING me. (There is no class roster available publicly so I can’t really tell exact numbers, but discussion forums have hundreds of posts in them.).
  • I choose whether I want to go for a certificate of completion or just cherry-pick certain lectures, readings, etc. to get what I need. If the certificate of completion is of value to me, I have to  achieve a certain score in the class and pass the final exam. On the other hand, if the certificate is not important to me, I can also choose to take all, some, or none of the quizzes and to complete all, some, or none of the assignments. I’m  directing my own learning and setting my own pace within the course experience.
  • I can choose – or not – to participate in discussion forums. I can also choose to form one or join ones that other learners have independently created around a sub-topic they are interested in. There is no “required” participation in the discussion forums.
  • The video lectures are “chunked” into 7 to 14-minute segments that correlate to points on the syllabus and match my limited time. I can listen to a lecture while I work out, in the 10 minutes I have before my day gets crazy, or late at night. They are extremely well-done, even though yes, they are pedagogy.
  • The “instructor” is a guide, not the means to success in the course. Dr. Kevin Werbach and his team of TAs have laid out some great content and put the elements in place to allow learning to happen – but I, as the learner, have full control over what/how I engage in the  content. He has provided the structure and the “formal” portions of the content, but I, along with the hundreds or thousands of other learners who are part of this course/community are enriching it and adding to it. The wiki that is part of the course is vibrant with students contributing to it. People are sharing out links like crazy on gamification resources, examples of gamification, etc.
  • Peers play a critical role in the learning and the evaluation of learning. The assignments are not graded by the instructor. (How could they be? Recall that there may be thousands of students in this course.) Instead, each person who completes an assignment also accepts the responsibility to review five other students’ assignments. Each reviewer has a rubric to guide the grading and feedback given. I’m intrigued by this as I want to see the quality and consistency of feedback I get…and see how vested I get in giving feedback to others. Obviously, the quality of the entire experience will be shared by all of us.
  • No one at my company directed me to take the course. I, as a company leader, am not mandating that others take the course because I find it of value. Yes I feel that my team should be focusing on the topic of gamification and building skill in its use in learning. However,  I cannot force learning, and leading people to a trough doesn’t make them learn. I shared the course information with team members in case they wanted to join my on the learning journey.   I hope others will follow, but I won’t require them to. I trust them to understand the results they are supposed to produce in their roles, and that they will seek out the learning opportunities they need to deliver those results.  Completion statuses on a set of required courses doesn’t translate to enhanced performance results.

I think it will be a new breed of workers – and a new breed of leadership – that embraces a learning model such as the one offered by Coursera. It’s exciting to me, though, that we have a model to strive toward.

FYI – for those willing to play “catch-up,” I believe you can still register, though your time is running out.