It’s not so easy to find your way among the alphabet soup of online training courses. While massive open online courses (MOOCs) is the term in popular use, online course formulae are evolving and mutating into new models.

I MOOC, you SPOC, he MIMOs: do you speak the language of online courses?

Interview as part of a L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast, with Philippe Chiu, Digital Director at e-learning platform IONISx, and Antoine Amiel, founder of Learn Assembly, an online training website aimed at businesses.

L’Atelier: Are MOOCs now outdated, then?

Antoine Amiel: No, no, MOOCs are not outdated. This is still a very new concept, just about two years old. To some extent it’s still at the exploratory stage and there are a lot of things still to be improved.  The idea is now being refined, with greater personalisation in the training so that it meets the real needs of the individual learner. MOOCs are actually maturing.  

Philippe Chiu: I absolutely agree that MOOCs are not out of date. Since the beginning of 2014 we’ve brought out a dozen MOOCs on IONISx and in fact we’ve learned a lot from that. There are lots of things that need improving, especially the timing aspect.  This is an absolutely fundamental point in line with the digital philosophy of ‘when and where it suits me’. The problem with MOOCs is that they’re only accessible at a certain date and they impose a set pace. Once the date and time have expired, that’s it. You can’t access the module any more.  At the end of the day, that’s just like a classroom-based course.

So we’ve come up with a new format called MIMO. Since September we haven’t been doing any further courses with fixed deadlines, only modules that are available to all learners at all times.

L’Atelier: What does MIMO stand for?

Philippe Chiu: It simply stands for Micro Module. We’ve also adapted the length. You can typically find MOOCs on a US platform that require 12 weeks of study, 10 hours a week, i.e. a total of 120 hours on one subject. That’s absolutely horrific. Our MIMOs are much less ambitious. They’re composed of microcapsules totalling 20 minutes. Not just 20 minutes of video time, I mean 20 minutes of summary, video, practical work, self-correct exercises, guidance, discussion forums, so that the users can learn at their own pace and become part of a community of learners.

L’Atelier: Isn’t that a bit too short? Aren’t you in danger of losing the real substance?

Philippe Chiu: No, though it’s true that a debate has been going on among academics for a long time about this. We came up with the 20 minute timescale after surveying our learners. It’s as simple as that. Fully 80% of them are in employment. When you mention a subway ride, a short commuter journey, 20 minutes of study on the in-car system, that’s something they can easily grasp. You can begin in the car and finish off when you get home.

L’Atelier: So you’re adapting the consumption of learning to the on-the-go situation…

Philippe Chiu: Exactly. And 20 minutes is just the basic building block. The MIMOs are strung together like beads on a necklace and you can keep going for two, three, four hours if you wish. Basically, every MIMO must be fully independent and you can then build on it with other modules according to need. For instance, if I’m preparing to fly a Cessna light aircraft I have to learn something about meteorology.  So we have extremely broad subjects packaged into microcapsules. When you get down to it, everyone’s familiar with capsule-based learning. We haven’t had to invent very much. We’ve just digitalised the process.

Antoine Amiel: I agree entirely with the idea of opening up courses for any time scale or period. At Learn Assembly, we’ve opted for a specific positioning on a single vertical – a given business or profession. So we do a lot of work on everything that has to do with business and entrepreneurship, innovation and the digital transformation but in line with the aims and needs of each of our clients. We try to offer the right teaching method, drawing inspiration from all that MOOCs have brought – i.e. user experience, the social side, the collaborative approach, online learning, peer-assessment systems where the users work with each other. So we go and draw on all types of methods. We offer video content, learning activities and also face-to-face teaching. I think there are a large number of potentially useful formats. Lastly, we offer different things depending on the company in question. If you have to get certain information across to 30,000 people in the course of a year, you’ll perhaps opt for a MOOC-type or MIMO format. If on the other hand you have to take a group of 50 people and ensure that they become expert in a given subject within six months, you’ll need to develop a more sophisticated approach with both online and face-to-face teaching sessions, coaching, tutorials, in-house incubators – lots of different things.

L’Atelier: You focus more on SPOCs, i.e. online courses for small private groups, sort of the opposite of the MOOCs principle. So what’s your target audience?

Antoine Amiel: A lot of universities have created SPOCs because they needed to find a model for MOOCs that would justify the considerable investment in content production and teaching technology. Companies that create SPOCs – essentially in-house MOOCs, private training courses for their staff – are aiming to enhance the skillsets of their workforce.  They usually do so as part of a Change Management plan linked to job mobility programmes. Let’s suppose that a company is changing its business strategy or wants to embark on a widespread digitalisation drive over the next five years. They’ll create a very specific, highly personalised training programme for these staff, which is designed to achieve real results. The staff will be able to follow the training remotely whenever it suits them, whether they’re in Poland, France, or wherever, whether they’re managers or at other levels in the company. So there you’re talking about a company-specific format.

L’Atelier: It’s a known fact that MOOCs don’t confer any certificates or diplomas. That’s why they’re free of charge.  So is there perhaps a diploma or certificate available to those following MIMOs and SPOCs, which will add value to their study initiative and help them for example to find new employment?

Antoine Amiel: Well, if we’re talking about MOOCs, you can in fact obtain a certificate at the end of your studies, provided you’ve completed the course from end to end.  

L’Atelier: Yes, if you go right through to the end, which is apparently a real problem since the drop-out rate is said to be pretty high…

Antoine Amiel: Yes, that’s right. The drop-out rate is quite high. But still, those who go right through to the end do receive a certificate. And nowadays some companies are starting to be more receptive and do recognise the value of that certificate. HR departments are beginning to change their views on that subject. As regards SPOCs and other private courses, people tend to be more committed to learning when they’ve had to pay for the course. The courses available on our platform can be obtained as VOD on a paid-for basis.

L’Atelier: How much do you charge?

Antoine Amiel: We sell each video at €9.90 per unit, for unlimited streaming. We also run a lot of face-to-face events – lectures, presentations by business people, venture capitalists, designers, consultants and digital systems experts –and then afterwards we offer these lectures online to enable a wider public to gain the benefit. We try to get companies to encourage their people to follow online training and then ensure that there is some tangible recognition at the end of the course, not just a certificate. That might mean for instance a move up to a better in-house job or a salary rise. If you run a two-month video training programme at your company, you need to make sure that the people who are going to follow the course for an hour or two hours a week will obtain a tangible result and will be able to see why they should make the effort.

L’Atelier: What about MIMOs? How can you confer recognition on those modules?

Philippe Chiu: Well, 20-minute MIMO formats are too short to certify. However, it would be possible to certify training courses made up of several MIMOs, perhaps 5 to 13 capsules of 20 minutes each. We’re about to bring out a package of a hundred MIMOs, so we could take this a lot further!  In these cases a certificate can be added to the learner’s professional profile – on LinkedIn for example.  One click and the information appears on your profile and you can explain: “I followed such-and-such a course. It contained 50 MIMOs. Now I’m able to carry out such-and-such a work project.

L’Atelier: Just to summarise: a single MIMO is free of charge but doesn’t confer any certificate, whereas a course comprising a number of MIMOs confers a certificate and it’s actually the certificate that you pay for…

Philippe Chiu: Not necessarily. The learner will pay at the end of the programme only if s/he needs proof of that, i.e. a certificate. But you can follow a programme right through and if you don’t need to prove anything to anybody you don’t need to pay anything.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for an internal promotion and you need proof that you followed the course, then that entails some expenses.

L’Atelier: How much will that cost?

Philippe Chiu: The average fee at IONISx is between €100 and €200, which basically just covers the cost of processing.  We do of course need to check the identity of the learner to be certain that the online identity really corresponds to the physical person.

By Virginie de Kerautem