Online Education: A New Approach to Developing Your Workforce

The Trouble with Tuition Reimbursement

Human resources is not just the department that hires and fires. It should be doing far more for employee development “” specifically, building a workforce that gets the most out of each employee’s individual talents. Developing that talent means providing the right resources and education. In the long term, this investment can pay off by resulting in happy, fulfilled employees who are loyal to the company.

Unfortunately, there is risk in reaching out to provide educational tools to employees, even when it appears to be in the company’s best interest. A promising employee could finish their MBA, collect their tuition reimbursement, and promptly defect to a competitor. That may seem like a worst-case scenario, but it’s not unusual. Managing a workforce to its fullest potential also involves mitigating the risk in assisting individuals with personal development.


Tuition reimbursement, though perhaps not as common as it once was, is still a benefit many companies offer their workforce. This stands to reason because companies themselves can gain much by funding higher education for the right person; increased sales, better efficiencies in office procedure, and cuts in bloated budgets are just a few things a well-educated management executive could bring to the table.

According to a study by Benefits USA in 2011, 84% of companies surveyed offered tuition reimbursement to some or all of their workforces. Of these, 63% of them required employees to remain at the company for a certain period of time after an educational program was completed. Even then, the average amount of time companies retained the newly-educated employees was only 15 months.

Practices like these, while typical, put companies at a considerable risk of losing the investment they have made in their employees’ education. After being reimbursed for costly degree programs at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, there is little incentive for employees to stay other than goodwill. High rates of employee retention make a company very attractive to new talent, as does offering a benefit like tuition reimbursement. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t match up with expectations.

According to an HR report in 2006, 15% or fewer of employees actually take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs; such a low participation rate is not likely to affect the average rate of employee attrition. Add in the high cost of education and risk of the employees leaving the company, and this benefit becomes questionable in terms of return on investment.

The Growing Potential of Online Alternatives

Free online education, which has undergone enormous growth in quality, quantity, and delivery in the last few years, neatly steps into the gap between human resources outreach and diminishing returns on employee education. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have exploded within the last 18 months. These courses are hosted by a third-party service provider like Udacity or edX, and usually taught by elite professors at high-end universities.

Exclusively online, the courses use web platforms and social media to hold class discussions, assign projects, review course material, and engage with the professor and other classmates. The open nature of the MOOC allows for as little or as much investment as the student is comfortable with making; some read along and watch presentations but do not complete assignments, while others treat the class like a for-credit course and finish every assignment and test.

Because of the immense popularity of MOOCs with both students and faculty, universities have scrambled to create more content. There are currently hundreds of free courses available to the public. For a company that would like to educate its employees without risk, the MOOC model could be a viable answer. Since the courses are free, financial risk is completely mitigated. And since the courses allow for fluidity in scheduling, employees can take the course whenever is most convenient. Because the courses are online, there is no commute time; the only time that’s invested is spent exclusively on the course itself.

A competent human resources director could easily design a training program based on available MOOCs. For example, as part of the onboarding process for new sales staff, the University of Washington’s “Introduction to Public Speaking” could be a six-week investment in basic presentation skills. A product management team could invest eight weeks in Penn State’s “Creativity, Innovation and Change,” using the course as a platform for brainstorming new products and services.

Technology is also of growing importance in the workplace, and it’s a skill area that many employees are lacking. Fortunately, there is an ever-expanding wealth of MOOCs available in computer science and network technology. Human resources and tech teams could develop their own internal training programs with the help of these courses, and thus provide avenues for employees to learn new skills and even move into tech-oriented positions.

MOOCs are constantly under development by the top three hosting providers edX, Udacity and Coursera. Here is a small sampling of MOOC courses that could serve in human resource development:




There is no question that MOOCs are revolutionizing the educational world; all the major colleges and universities are getting involved. Much of the current MOOC content is centered around business, management and technology, so savvy human resource professionals should be paying attention to this growing source of knowledge; it can help provide the professional development their employees need at virtually no cost to the company.

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