On Friday afternoons, the team at Much Better Adventures, a UK company that helps people plan vacations without having to hunt for lodging, stops what they're doing and spends some time learning about sustainability via massively open online courses (MOOCS) Coursera and Future Learn.
"We try to improve our understanding of what type of impact our industry and business as a whole is having on the environment and sustainable development," said CEO Alex Narracott, "Then we use to try and inform that way we develop the business as a whole."
For the uninitiated, MOOCS are free online courses that are available to whomever wants to take them over the course of many weeks. Often times they'll include lectures, assignments, and homework, but the rules can differ as to pacing. For example, if you hop on Coursera, you can take a 10-week course from Stanford on machine learning. Or, a 13-week class on Buddhist meditation and the modern world from University of Virginia. Depending on the class and platform, students may receive a certificate of completion. And that certification can work toward the continuing education credits that some professions require.
In the past several years since MOOCs have gained steam, their uses have expanded from individuals brushing up on topics like art or coding in their free time, to the less foreseen use of businesses using them to train or further educate employees.
There are a few reasons why MOOCs can work in a corporate setting. For one, they cost far less than putting employees through something like master's program, or a college course at a local university.
That also means that more employees can have access to this education instead of a select group, perhaps, that might attend a seminar or the like if a larger corporation offers something like a corporate university.
According to Udacity's vice president of business development Clarissa Shen, MOOCs can offer a certain efficiency in terms of time and relevancy. "With changes in technology happening rapidly and the skills gap in technology jobs growing, companies are finding that traditional universities cannot keep up on both fronts," said.
Plus, the rate at which an industry like technology evolves, Shen said, turning to MOOCs can save employees from obsolescence. "Professionals need to have a place they can go to that is accessible, affordable and relevant for them to learn new skills within their daily busy routines," she said.
As businesses are becoming more interested in using MOOCs, MOOC platforms like Coursera and Udacity are finding ways to cater to them.
"We're definitely interested in engaging with companies and figuring out the right way that we can work with companies in order to bring them value, and bring value to our university partners and bring value to students," said Coursera's Head of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships Julia Sitglitz.
For Coursera, for example, that means all of the courses are accessible for free, but they've also worked to bring extra value with a product like their Signature Track, which launched in 2012, and provides the additional authentication of certification (that costs between $30 and $100) after the completion of a course.
They're also delving into specializations, which are courses in high-need areas like data science, cyber security, or Android mobile app development, that include a culminating capstone project. Given the oft-discussed skills gap, many of those high-need areas right now are in the tech industry.
"If you go to any tech company and ask them what are some of their biggest hiring needs, they'll probably say mobile dev, data science, and machine learning," Sitglitz said. Five years ago, these might not have been areas as much in demand, or even emphasized in schools.
"Both the industry and individuals are feeling the pressure to keep up in terms of having the skills you need individually and as a company to stay competitive," Sitglitz said.
The MOOCs trend is bleeding into other segments of learning too. Saba Software is a learning and talent management provider that aids in compliance needs, as well as talent enrichment. According to Nag Chandrashekar, senior product director, when they ask customers what they want in terms of adding to the Saba framework, it's MOOCs integration.
"It's the most interesting revelation for us in talking to our customers," he said. Now, Saba hopes to build partnerships that would bring MOOC content into their system so customers can not only access it but keep track of things like certifications as the idea of continuous education gains ground.
And apart from big name MOOC platforms, companies are taking the idea and often the structure of this next iteration of online learning, and creating their own MOOCs, both internal and external facing.
SAP's chief learning officer, Jenny Dearborn, sees this trend in corporate education as a "flattening" that defines the role of a learning organization and empowers people.
"If you think you're commanding in a controlled space anymore, then you've just been missing what's been happening," she said.
Internally, SAP has MOOCs lead by people like SAP executives that cover not only their products, but "soft skills" like leadership.
SAP Jam's Sameer Patel said that externally, SAP's Jam platform can facilitate online learning for business- a hotel, for example, to be able to push something like a video to employees with tips and tricks for cleaning a room more efficiently.
Over the years, Dearborn said that SAP has tried many different formats for internal education, including podcasts, videos, and RSS feeds. MOOCs just fit their company culture best.
Though, it hasn't all been rosey. She calls it the "cycle of acceptance."
Stanford University reported last year that the completion rate for MOOCs is between 5 and 10%. Students sign up, excited that the courses are free, but then drift off when faced with actual work. Or, they sign up to check it out and just never finish.
In a corporate setting, the circumstances are different, but Dearborn did acknowledge the burst-bubble-vibes when it seemed to come out that MOOCs were not all they were cracked up to be.
Dearborn said once the disillusionment passed and expectations leveled, they started to reach a high point of productivity with their system.
"If used in the right way, for the right content, with the right learners, with the right expectations, it's perfect," she said.
For the team at Much Better Adventures, "productive" is an apt description for how they're using what they're learning in sustainability. They've started a foundation geared toward funding conservation projects.
"We all have a lot of passion that we didn't want to get completely lost in as we grow," Narracott said. "It's key to keeping us fresh as a team."
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.