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Free Classes Target Tech Skills Gap

Companies struggling to fill high-tech jobs are considering expanding their applicant pool by tapping a new source of skilled workers, those educated in massive open online courses.

MOOCs are a new phenomenon being embraced by corporations. The Internet-based classrooms, usually offered for free to students, are ideally suited for teaching the latest business developments, such as crafting mobile applications for smartphones and tablets, or marketing using social media.

While still in their infancy, MOOCs are transforming online education, taking it from primarily the domain of paying students to a vast, global market, much of which could not otherwise afford college-level courses.

Recruiter Turns To MOOCs

Boston-based recruiting firm Aquent began offering a MOOC after clients voiced concerns that even educated and experienced job applicants lacked now-necessary skills.

"Technology seems to keep outpacing skill sets," said Alison Farmer, vice president of learning and development at Aquent. "We are constantly hitting labor gaps.

MOOCs rose to prominence last year when a pair of Silicon Valley startups, Coursera and Udacity, partnered with several universities to offer their courses online.

Public awareness was heightened when two of the nation's most prestigious schools, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded EdX last year. The nonprofit now includes 28 well-known institutions, including Georgetown University and University of California, Berkeley.

There is no reliable estimate of how many students have enrolled in MOOCs, as users sign up daily. EdX, for one, claims to have about 1.2 million unique users on its platform to date. It expects that to grow dramatically as offerings expand. As of August, it offered 62 courses, with plans to have at least 75 by year-end.

Large MOOC providers offer courses from math and science to business, computer science and languages.

Last summer, Aquent launched its online class, a free course on the Internet web-design language HTML5. About 300 students who completed the course later enlisted Aquent to represent them in job hunts, with many landing positions in part thanks to the HTML5 training.

The successful program not only provided Aquent with a new source of recruits, Farmer said, but also demonstrated to employers the firm's commitment to providing skilled workers.

Observers predict companies will follow Aquent's lead.

Trace Urdan, an education analyst for Wells Fargo, said the early signs of a movement are appearing mostly in the IT sector.

But more employers are paying attention, in part due to increasing concerns about job applicants' ability to afford college.

"The challenges of paying for higher education are enormous," Urdan said.

College costs have been soaring for years, and many experts say the institutions need to develop ways to curb price hikes before college becomes financially out of reach for a vast majority of America's youth.

Udacity, with funding support from AT&T (T), is working with Georgia Tech to offer the first professional online masters degree in computer science that can be earned entirely via the MOOC format.

EdX is selling its online course to universities so they can use it to offer their own MOOCs.

EdX also is active globally, recently teaming up with an Indian recruiting firm called Aspiring Minds. EdX and the recruiter will track students who complete the online courses to gauge how well their skills match employers' needs.

"This is all very fast-moving," said Dan O'Connell, an EdX spokesman.

Ivory Tower Debate

Whether MOOCs are the solution, just a stepping stone or a controversial misstep is the subject of intensifying debate in higher education.

Many professors like the idea of making college-level courses more widely available, but many also fret about ensuring quality and giving up student-fee revenue should completion of such courses become widely accepted for credit by universities.

A push is underway on that front, but currently the vast majority of MOOCs — hundreds of which are offered in the U.S. — are not taken for college credit.

In the next few years, companies likely will become more familiar with groups like Coursera, Udacity and EdX as more job applicants take advantage of the opportunity to learn needed skills online. Ultimately, employers will determine whether MOOCs make the grade in providing much-needed skilled workers.