These developers have drawn huge audiences of millions globally to their free content which is developed by industry professionals and leading academics.
For MBA and business school students, it means an online network of additional knowledge to tap into outside of the classroom, free of charge. For the learning technology companies that produce the courses, it is a way to turn their enormous popularity into cash, and widen their student pools.
These online learning specialists now offer businesses tailored online content for a fee, with perks like user analytics and the freedom to create their own subject matter.
According to Bersin by Deloitte, a HR research firm owned by the consultancy, the corporate training market is worth $70 billion in the US alone. Deloitte says that 44% of training outfits it surveyed say they are experimenting with Moocs.
The operators of these Moocs including edX, Coursera and Udemy are tapping into this market with a cadre of courses aimed at executives – pitching them against business schools – and customized corporate programs which are developed in collaboration with universities.
It is one of many measures designed to monetize the Mooc which both learning tech companies and business schools are researching, and represents a potentially lucrative market to move into.
Earlier this year, edX ran a pilot course on big data that enrolled 3,500 people from more than 2,000 organizations including Microsoft, the computer juggernaut, grossing about $1.7 million.
An initiative of leading US universities MIT and Harvard, edX has shown signs it is evolving into the fee-paying market with courses that target business professionals.
Earlier this month it announced a series of online programs aimed at executives on topics including energy, innovation and cybersecurity that cost up to $1,249. As well as charging upfront fees, edX licences courses to institutions and sells verified certificates which students can present to potential employers.
San Francisco-based Udemy launched Udemy for Business in 2013 and has grown to have more than 350 partners including Oracle Corporation, the listed computer technology giant. Businesses can license content for $29 a user per month, or pay a $15 monthly per-person fee to build customized courses on the Udemy platform.
Coursera has risen to prominence as a provider of free content but the company is also moving into a revenue generating market with a series of business-related courses.
The company launched a sequence of new online courses in January that it is able to monetize. After completing a unit a student can buy a certificate of proof, with each unit’s certificate costing $49.
It announced 18 more last week and eight of the courses are in business and management-related subjects including digital marketing which takes four weeks to complete and which the company charges about $300 for a certificate of.
Coursera has already landed internet giant Yahoo! as a client, which covers the cost of its employees’ certificates, while C3 Energy, the software company, is paying employees to take a Coursera-hosted machine learning course, Coursera president Daphne Koller told BusinessBecause.
Bank of New York Mellon plans to roll out a series of Coursera finance classes to teach new hires basic finance such as how capital flows, what liquidity means and why risk management is important. It could be a significant coup and revenue generator: the bank has 51,000 global employees.
“Many companies have also approached us with interest in using Coursera-hosted courses for training their employees,” said Daphne.
She denied that Coursera’s move into fee-paying courses rivalled traditional business education. However, business schools are also expanding into the corporate training market.
The learning technology revolution has coincided with a boom in executive education, the short-course king and the main revenue driver of business schools which is being fuelled by high demand in emerging markets.
These schools see Moocs as a means of marketing their expensive degree programs but they are also hoping to sell off online courses to corporations.
Dr Martin Bicknell, who is pioneering Moocs at Henley Business School, said that Henley was in early stage talks with a leading technology company about selling them paid-for Mooc courses.
“To what extent [can] we leverage value-add and get some payment? There’s a huge amount of money involved,” he said. Henley had 19,000 people sign up for its first Mooc that was developed with FutureLearn, a rival to Coursera.
The UK business school also netted a contract to train the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the UK’s regulator, with an exclusive course in financial regulation that will be taught through distance learning.
John Board, Henley dean, said FCA regulators will spend two or three days a month learning at the school, but there is “a lot of online learning” involved in the course.
The FCA said that the course was an important tool to help attract and retain staff – a view shared by many other organizations.
The financial regulator said the cost of this program is “comparable to that of a specialist MSc course”. Henley's other MSc programs cost up to £18,000.
But Martin Wheatley, CEO of the FCA, said that the regulator is delighted to be able to invest in the future of the industry.
“This course will allow us to build the understanding, confidence and critical analysis skills needed in our regulators,” he said.
Other schools have landed similar contracts. London Business School won a $38 million contract to train managers at the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, the state-owned oil group. It is understood to be the largest ever signed by a UK business school.
Andrew White, associate dean for executive education at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, said revenues from custom business have risen from $9 million to $15 million in a year.
Peter Rodriguez, associate professor at the Darden School of Business who helped develop the school’s five Moocs, said that online courses can be monetized. More than 600,000 users have signed up for Darden’s Moocs.
He added: “I think that we'll find a way forward in doing that, and I think we're beginning to do that now.”
Régis Faubet, a digital manager at Grenoble Ecole de Management, said that “proctored, paying exams are one of the most obvious choices to monetize” Moocs and that “sponsorship from companies could also be an option”.
“When online learning resources have become a commodity, business schools will have to invent premium services for distance learners,” he added.