We don't know whether massive online open courses (MOOCs) will be more than a fad in higher education — but they're inspiring other kinds of organizations to create MOOCs of their own.
Aquent, a staffing firm that links companies with contractors, is opening its own MOOC, the Aquent Gymnasium, in June. Aquent mainly serves marketing, creative and digital firms, which see frequent changes in staffing needs as new technologies such as mobile platforms emerge.
Last year Aquent found that clients were requesting workers with HTML 5 skills and "not a ton of people had them at that point," said Alison Farmer, Aquent's VP of learning and development. The company decided to see whether it could meet this skills gap by training, "manufacturing a workforce qualified for these jobs we are getting," Farmer said.
Aquent built a four-session, open online HTML 5 course as an experiment. It had never offered any training courses and wasn't sure people would take it seriously. More than 10,000 people registered for the class. Of that number, 367 took a final exam. Aquent interviewed the best performers, and wound up placing 200 of them in jobs.
Farmer says the success of that program led Aquent to create Gymnasium. The first course will be a six-week session, "Coding for Designers." It will aim not at creating designers who can also develop, but at helping designers who work with developers become more comfortable with code.
"It's a weird class," Farmer acknowledged. "We hear from employers that it will be attractive and we don't think it already exists."
Aquent plans to add a new course to Gymnasium each month during the year, on subjects such as "Time-saving Tricks For Jquery" and "Responsive Web Design." The courses will be free and open. The platform is being built with Rocketcourse by Tott Labs, a Boston-area developer that will also host the courses.
Farmer says Aquent believes it is the first staffing company to add skills development training. It hopes the courses will serve three purposes: Help expand its pool of job candidates, help establish Aquent as a value-added service provider, and raise Aquent's profile with potential employers.
Another company responding to the MOOC phenomenon is TrainSignal, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based training company that sold certification and skills development courses as DVDs. Until earlier this year, those DVDs cost $499 apiece, and were offered as cheaper and more convenient alternatives to in-person training classes.
In February, TrainSignal opened a subscription service for its 200+ courses, giving access to all of them for $49 a month. Scott Skinger, its founder and CEO, said the company was responding in part to the emergence of Udemy, a MOOC that lets people build their own courses, and to free content sources.
Skinger said his firm, which did about $7 million in sales last year, hopes that the move to online, subscription-based classes will make it easier for it to update content, and to develop more kinds of content, perhaps even "long tail courses that wouldn't make sense on DVD."
One new TrainSignal user is Patrick Gagnon, who said he uses TrainSignal's classes to help him develop skills as an IT support person. He works as a support contractor for the MacArthur Foundation, which employs him through a temporary agency.
Gagnon, 35, previously was an actor, and switched to IT support a couple of years ago. "I had a sense that I need to get as much info and be as literate and skilled as possible in as quick a timeframe as possible, without going back to college and incurring expenses," Gagnon said.
He said he had previously considered TrainSignal's DVDs but never bought them because they were too expensive. Under the subscription model, in the last two months he's taken 10 full classes and completed parts of six others.
"It's given me the ability to speak intelligently about things I don't have a ton of on-hand experience with yet," said Gagnon. "It also indicates to my colleagues and bosses that I am actively seeking to grow my skillset."
Aquent and TrainSignal might not serve as definitive proof that online learning will blunt skills gaps as they emerge in the U.S., but they offer a glimmer of the potential that MOOCs have outside higher education.