IBM and MOOCs: Innovations in Practice
MOOCs. Massive open online courses. Many say these are early days, but
IBM has been offering MOOC learning for three years. This paper offers a brief
overview followed by five elements to the IBM approach and innovations in
practice for five key IBM populations, along with associated best practices.
Overview of the Trend
Much of the discussion around MOOCs has related to Higher Education,
though New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman makes connections to the
workforce. Earlier this year he wrote:
The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has
adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted
on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this
phenomenon will really scale…. It will change teaching, learning and the
pathway to employment”1.
One IBMer’s experience led to tweeting, blogging…and this white paper.
As I’m a leader in the IBM Center for Advanced Learning, my first choice was
related to learning and technology. I completed a MOOC, “e-Learning and Digital
Selected tweets from my series on MOOC Pro’s and Con’s.
Friedman, January 26, 2013, http://nyti.ms/VeyMB0
Based on two readings from the course, the first tweet offers reassurance that
kids may need kinesthetic learning, but adults can stay engaged even when
we’re not face to face, as long as there’s at least 2D video of humans, for
example, the instructor and other students included in the learning. The second
tweet raises a question that requires research to answer: Why do only a fraction
of enrollees complete MOOCs today? Is the incentive too low? For example, my
statement of accomplishment did not even include the logo of the University of
The third tweet addresses the essential loneliness I felt during my first MOOC
due to the absence of a student-teacher bond. After I completed the MOOC, Dr.
Allison Rossett, who serves on the Board of Chief Learning Officer magazine,
invited me to be a guest blogger, where I wrote further about pro’s and con’s in
“My First MOOC” at http://bit.ly/YcSYV4.
MOOCs enable staying current and gaining skills for jobs of the future.
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty values IBMers enrolling in external MOOCs as part
of a learning initiative she launched, where she encourages IBMers to engage in
a minimum of 40 hours of career-development learning annually. The typical
external MOOC helps IBMers exceed the 40-hour mark, which is desirable, as
the CEO wants our skills to be fresh and even anticipatory. We need to be ready
for jobs that don’t exist today.
MOOC hub for IBMers – an aggregated collection for convenient access.
Five Essential Elements to the IBM Approach
By design, our approach differs with that of typical MOOCs. First, we design
our massive online learning offerings to suit specific business needs by contrast
to the university approach. Will we deliver MOOCs to current and future clients
and prospective IBMers at some point? It’s a great question. Meanwhile, they are
Second, our typical MOOCs might more appropriately be thought of as microMOOCs, lasting no longer than a day, and most often for no longer 60-120
minutes; we’re a business after all, not a university. Their shorter duration
produces a less lonely learning experience; for example, it’s more practical for
Ginni to take questions from the audience during a live broadcast that lasts for 60
minutes, rather than during a sustained, 7-12-week course – the length of a
typical external MOOC. Third, they’re also optimized for mobile devices so we
can participate in them on the go.
Fourth, routinely, we offer moderated live chat, enabling active, synchronous
social learning among the participants and the instructors. Finally, we provide
post-broadcast ‘pause-and-think’ questions that lead to continued dialogue and
learning in an associated, online community. The live chat and post-event online
forum make these more than just broadcast, one-way, few-to-many learning
Example of ‘pause and think’ Qs and response, from an enterprise-wide IBM MOOC on Cloud Computing.
IBM Innovations in Practice
For all IBMers
IBM-sponsored, internal MOOCs help provide IBMers with practical upskilling
for current and future jobs. For example, in the recent Think Academy series, our
CEO Ginni Rometty invites the entire IBM workforce (450,000+) to learn from
clients and in-house SME’s on strategic topics, including Cloud and Big Data &
Analytics. There are also bonus tracks for sellers and the technical community.
The series provides linkage among the videos and interviews, soliciting questions
from IBMers during the broadcasts and beyond within an internal, online
community built just for the Think Academy series.
The live, enterprise-wide MOOC on Cloud Computing, hosted by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.
For new IBMers
Annually, we offer another sort of online learning that’s popular with
thousands of new IBMers joining the company around the world: The learning
event is called Deeper Insight. Deeper Insight has attracted 14,000 live
participants, including up to 1,300 participants per session.
Deeper Insight offers, well, deeper insight for new joiners, though all IBMers
are welcome. It’s all about helping new hires feel at home quickly through
networking opportunities, sessions on career development and keynotes from
senior leaders they might not otherwise have easy access to. The sessions are
offered as replay-as-live; that means they are pre-recorded, but the speakers join
live to handle live Q&A at the end of each session. We also record the Q&A, and
then offer all of the sessions and associated Q&A as replay-packages.
Lobby of Deeper Insight, a global virtual conference for new IBMers, including 14,000 live joiners.
In addition to Deeper Insight, we have experimented with offering sessions
that feature live video over the web to new IBMers during the year on a hot topic,
a two-part series on how to handle performance reviews, both as a new IBMer
and as a new IBM manager. Renee Ducre is a seasoned IBM executive who
gave terrific, practical advice. The second session was especially popular due to
word of mouth from the first one.
Session One included 1,500 live participants, 218 comments, and nearly
6,600 replay downloads. Session Two included nearly 4,000 live participants,
595 comments, nearly 10,500 replay downloads.
Live-video-over-the-web session for new IBMers on ensuring an informed mid-year performance
review – replay of IBM director Renee Ducre (left) and IBM moderator Sarah Siegel (right).
Ahead of each live session, we invited participants to post their questions and
then vote up the most relevant ones. And then we featured the top five most
highly-rated questions. We did so by displaying the questioner’s photo, name,
title and location, which gave them visibility among their peers.
We were struck by the candor that participants displayed in asking some
vulnerable questions – with their names associated, rather than anonymously –
Is a bell curve used?
What are the chances of getting a rating changed?
Is it possible not to accept the rating given by my people manager?
Where do I give feedback on my own manager?
After answering the top-rated questions, in my role as the moderator, I
monitored the live chat and selected questions from it spontaneously. We
learned this technique of crowdsourcing for the most burning questions
experientially, from another series of massive, live, online learning sessions
called the Technical Leadership Exchange, which we’ll describe next.
For technical leaders
IBM technical leaders can peer into the future through MOOCs on advanced
topics. Six times a year, around the world, the Technical Leadership Exchange
(TLE) features day-long series of live broadcasts that cover emerging technology
trends for a high-potential technical leader audience. The series includes
continuous, moderated live chat and a post-event online forum. In 2013, we
streamed the sessions live over the web from six global locales, including South
Africa and Turkey while online participants joined from 26 countries.
The TLE is a special hybrid event. Below, the scene shows the TLE in South
Africa earlier this year, where up to 200 participants joined in a local, on-site
auditorium while more than 40,000 participants were invited to view the sessions
live from wherever in the world they were working and living.
TLE session featuring a panel of local leaders, streamed live over the web, with live chat among
the thousands of online participants from 26 countries and Q&A with 200 local participants.
For Project Managers
IBM employs thousands of Project Managers, so we need to offer a
conference for them to learn how to continue being the industry’s best PM’s.
Voila! PMConnect 2013 – with a moderator for 11 Livestream sessions. During
the 72 hours of PM Connect we delivered over 4,400 hours of education, all of
which included moderated live chat.
PM Connect won a 2013 Brandon Hall Gold Excellence Award for Learning in
the area of Best Use of Social / Collaborative Learning and the PMI Product of
the Year award in 2013, for PM Connect 2012; there are over 1000 PMI
Registered Education Providers eligible for this award.
Teaching up to 27,000 IBM Project Managers to use social media for better project management
via a virtual, moderated panel streamed live over the web.
For Human Resources professionals
The following is an asynchronous example of social learning en masse. On
Day 1 in her role, our Senior VP of Human Resources Diane Gherson posted a
video blog in the internal HR Hub community. She asked HR professionals to
crowdsource: What did we see as necessary areas of focus for the rest of 2013
and going into 2014? Diane’s video blog attracted more than 8,000 visits and
within hours, people posted 198 ideas.
IBM Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Diane Gherson, crowdsourcing 2014 priorities on
Day 1 in her role.
Another successful MOOC series for HR professionals includes live Q&A with
the interviewees in an online forum at a specified date. People come to the forum
at the designated day and time and for 60 minutes. The interviewees conduct a
live exchange by chat with participants who post questions and comments.
We’ve hosted at least half a dozen in the past couple of years and all of them
provide popular opportunities for:
• Live interaction with IBM senior leaders
• Participants to establish or increase our visibility with the leaders
• Leaders to learn what’s on IBMers’ minds.
Video of IBMer Alana Buckner, interviewing Frank Persico Vice President, Learning and Gordon
Fuller, Director, IBM Center for Advanced Learning, limited to the length of a TEDTalk.
We have learned a great deal by designing and launching the Think Academy
series for all IBMers, along with MOOCs for new joiners, technical leaders, and
Project Managers and HR professionals. Over the past three years, best
practices have emerged, including a number that can inform your internal MOOC
Our success comes especially from offering a simple, appealing way to enroll
and from providing richly moderated live chats along with the live video sessions.
Many corporate learning organizations recognize the registration system as a
success factor, but how many ensure engaged participants in the live chat
through thoroughly equipping live-chat moderators for success?
Based on lessons learned, we have built a convenient, centralized registration
system to make enrollment simple for everyone, and to enable us to see the
countries and business units our participants hail from.
Example of centralized, online enrollment system – in this case for the IBM Manager Community.
We train teams of live chat moderators, depending on the duration of the live
learning, and we provide them with cheat sheets. For example, the TLE runs live
for a full day and we have trained a team of facilitators in Manila to serve as livechat moderators. They take shifts across the day, wherever in the world the TLE
To ensure their ability to be ultra-present and rapidly engage learners in their
chat moderator role, we give them the URLs for the speaker bios and associated
links ahead of time and then they simply cut and paste them into the chat. That
way, they can focus on the rest of the less predictable dialogue that happens
naturally among the many participants, and can also steer it gently back on
course if it veers off-topic.
Example of a live chat moderators’ cheat sheet, to enable their cutting and pasting links to
abstracts and speaker bio’s, which lets them to be more present for the deeper learning.
Particular challenges associated with learning en masse so far relate to:
• Bandwidth both from an enterprise perspective and for individual IBMers,
for example, China has not got access to certain live, streamed video
• The loneliness factor, including no student-teacher bond. As we hope you
can see from the MOOC learning we’ve designed at IBM over the past few
years, we minimize the loneliness factor through multiple opportunities for
live interaction with speakers and among peers.
There will always be a right time and place for face-to-face learning, but for
learning at scale, we do our best to make it easy to opt in through convenient
enrollment, and to feel part of an engaged cohort -- particularly through
intentional moderated live chat, relevant video and actively-hosted online forums.
If your organization is made up of thousands of people, we hope our approach
will inspire you to consider expanding the role of MOOCs in your learning future.
Sarah Siegel with Matt Valencius and Doug Lieberman