Massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera and FutureLearn have been riding a wave of job security fears caused by automation and digital disruption to increase their reach and revenue.

Coursera is now valued at $2.5 billion after raising another $130 million in venture capital in July 2020. And in a global higher education market worth $2 trillion, the coronavirus pandemic has also given a boost to MOOC providers, which often offer content in partnership with and created by universities and schools.

But flocking to online education platforms out of fears about the future of work is different from actually gaining skills that prepare learners for the future. To answer questions about what value MOOCs really provide, Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning Executive Director of Digital and Open Programs Anne Trumbore examined reported outcomes from learners in a chapter for the upcoming book The Future of Work: Optimizing the Talent Pipeline (Stanford University Press, 2021).

“MOOC providers are capitalizing on the steady drumbeat of panic about job disruption by positioning their products as a hedge against unemployment and displacement,” Trumbore says. “But as yet, no one has examined if learning behaviors in MOOCs are correlated to career benefits.”

Trumbore developed a study to answer which behavior variables in online courses correlate to postcourse career benefits. Results from a survey of a random sample of online learners revealed that 79 percent of learners believe they “definitely” or “probably” experienced career benefits from taking MOOCs.

So why should professionals consider taking these courses? What are the real benefits?


Interestingly, learners’ intentions for taking a MOOC often do not line up with the benefits they report from completing the course. Trumbore found that 54 percent of learners said they received career benefits different from those they expected when they enrolled. And while only 18 percent of learners said “learning something new about the topic” was their primary motivation for enrolling in a MOOC, 48 percent reported new learning about the topic as the primary benefit of completing the course.

If you need to advance a hard skill for your job or to prepare for a new job, MOOCs are an effective and affordable option for many.


The study revealed that a small but not insubstantial number of learners gained measurable career benefits from taking MOOCs. For example, 15 percent of those surveyed reported improved job performance, 2 percent said they earned a new role at work and nearly 1 percent reported receiving a raise or bonus. So if a professional’s primary motivation is to earn a raise or new role, taking a MOOC could be part of a well-rounded case to present to an employer but does not appear likely to move the needle on its own.

Trumbore says additional research is needed to understand hiring manager, employer and employee points of view about how MOOC completion is preparing learners for the future of work and closing critical skills gaps.


Unexpectedly, MOOCs operate as preparation for and a supplement to business school degree programs. Nearly a quarter of survey respondents were enrolled in a degree program and 43 percent planned to apply to a degree program.

MOOCs on business topics can essentially serve as boosters for professionals who are looking to make the most out of an education-focused period of their career. Conversely, Trumbore says “MOOCs on business topics show potential as an effective recruitment tool for business schools.”


Trumbore says MOOCs, traditional higher education, established purveyors of lifelong learning credentials and new models of disruption in education are all needed to provide solutions to the same talent problem faced by a majority of businesses today. They face a skills mismatch between what employees know how to do and what the businesses need them to do. The rapidly changing nature of work has made it difficult to hire enough trained workers.

“Continuing education, or lifelong learning, is seen as the best response to the threat,” Trumbore says. “Workers will continuously learn new skills and evolve alongside the changing nature of their jobs. Universities, but particularly business schools, have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to provide these educational opportunities to a broader audience at a lower price online.”

Anne Trumbore, Ed.D, is Executive Director, Digital, Lifelong Learning & Executive Education at The University of Virginia Darden School of Business

This post is a reprint of an article that appeared on Ideas to Action, Darden’s thought leadership website.