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The business world is ripe for an e-learning explosion as the number of qualified experts can’t keep pace with innovations like mobile, cloud, and Big-Data. Arming employees with the latest skills and knowledge so they can function with excellence is a strategic imperative for every business regardless of size, location, and industry.  Institutions of higher education are corralling more and more students in online study sessions (officially known as Massive Open Online Courses—MOOCs). Now the business world is finally entering the fray.

This past winter, I took the plunge by attending an eight-week social media course offered by the International Association of Business Communications (IABC). Here are the highs and lows based on my experience.

First the pros:

  • Location, location, location: I had an entire week to decide the best time to watch the videotaped lecture in my home office. Scheduling an uninterrupted couple of hours was a breeze, guaranteeing my full attention despite a busy workload.
  • Multi-modal content delivery: Each self-study session was a learning-friendly blend of instructor narration, embedded videos, and self-paced reading. I deliberately took the 10-question quiz immediately at the end of each lesson which helped keep me focused. Grade: 100% on 95% of the quizzes. (I still disagree with the answer on the one question I was told I got wrong.)

As for the cons:

  • Interactivity: Not so much. With over one hundred participants from around the world online for each session, classroom intimacy was shall we, different. It’s not that the facilitators didn’t do their best to encourage phone and online participation. There’s just no substitute for a group of people getting together weekly in the same room to explore new topics together.
  • Personalization:Facebook and Google Plus sites allowed attendees to pose questions or share observations which the instructors answered. Unfortunately, minus the nuances of non-verbal cues, digital communication is still more transactional than anything else. After submitting a couple of queries that were glibly answered but provided no real insights (Me: How can I increase the number of Twitter followers? Instructor: Be interesting), I gave up.
  • Usable content from Live Lectures: No doubt employing the concept of crowd sourcing, the instructors moderated what was essentially a free-for-all for every live lecture, inviting participants to share their thoughts and questions. Unfortunately, it didn't hold my attention or encourage me to participate. Why not go multi-modal during live lectures too? In a recent study conducted by psychology researchers at Harvard University, student attendees in online video lectures that were tested during regular breaks scored highest on a final cumulative test, took more notes, and stayed more focused, reporting their minds strayed less often.

Overall, it was an excellent learning experience from which I’ve drawn two main conclusions. First, don’t try to boil the ocean. Focused “how-to” course content is likeliest to be learned and retained by employees with numerous other responsibilities. Second, offer live lectures with the optimal blend of structure and openness to keep a large group of virtual strangers engaged. My company, SAP, has just announced open registration for its MOOC offering, “Introduction to Software Development on HANA,” as part of its comprehensive training and education portfolio. Each combines the best practices of classroom learning—weekly homework, self-tests, a final exam—with online student collaboration and engagement, including easily digestible video and real-time discussions with classmates and instructors. Virtually speaking, this could be one of the next learning frontiers for software developers everywhere.