Aquent Aquent

Can a Private Company Produce a Successful MOOC? (Hint: Yes, You Can)

by Matthew T. Grant

Can a Private Company Produce a Successful MOOC? (Hint: Yes, You Can) image
Can a Private Company Produce a Successful MOOC? (Hint: Yes, You Can)

A little over a year ago we opened our own school, Aquent Gymnasium.

The big idea was that we could help close the skills gap for digital creatives by offering free online courses clearly focused on getting working professionals to the next level.

If you were an experienced graphic designer, for example, we would teach you how to code. If you were an experienced front-end developer, we would teach you responsive web design techniques. If you were already working with JavaScript, we would teach you how to increase your productivity with jQuery. And so on.

Focus was key. We worked closely with our clients to figure out exactly which courses we should offer. We made it clear that our courses were not for beginners and laid out precisely what students would already have to be able to do before starting.

And we made sure that, by the end of a given course, people could actually DO something they couldn't do before (code a web page, build a responsive portfolio, use jQuery).

The kicker was this: By actually placing students we’d gotten to know through Gymnasium on assignments with our clients, we established a revenue stream that would enable us to continue developing and offering new courses on into the future.

Real Results. Rave Reviews.

It turns out we were onto something. Over 30,000 students have enrolled in our courses so far. Completion rates are averaging 10% (7% is the average for most Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs), with our Coding for Designers course coming in at around 16%.

Additionally, we have a certification rate of 76%. That means the vast majority of the students who finish a course score 85% (the cut-off for receiving a certificate) or better on the final exam. In other words, if people get through the course, they really learn something!

And while the results might speak for themselves, it’s also been nice to see that student feedback has been consistently positive:

"I've been waiting for a class like this. Very specific to what I need to learn as a print designer transitioning into web. Thank you!" - Shellane, Coding for Designers

"I can't even begin to explain how valuable tutorials like this are for someone like myself who is a graphic designer but is constantly being told I need HTML and CSS basic experience." - Alex, Coding for Designers

"The instruction videos and material were top-notch and entertaining. You have provided us with a wealth of resources to reference and I'm walking away with a great grasp on creating all of the elements of a responsive site from the ground up." - Justin, Responsive Web Design

"Just want to say this is the most thorough online course I've taken on this or any other subject…I give you an A+++" - Stephen, Responsive Web Design

"Just wanted to say thank you for putting this course together. I really learned a lot not only about programming, but what JQuery resources are available online. I look forward to other classes you may be putting in the Gymnasium in the future." - Rick, jQuery Building Blocks

The deep subject matter expertise of our instructors aside, people have also expressed how much they actually enjoy the courses:

"This class format is AWESOME, and the teacher is GREAT." - Heidi, Coding for Designers 

"I just wanted to say thank you to Jeremy and the entire staff at Aquent for an exemplary course! I really appreciated the great knowledge you guys provide, but also that you serve it up with a side of funny. It's great to see people doing what they love." - Gary, Responsive Web Design

Believe the Hype

An obsession with technology has marked our entire history as a company. When universities like Stanford and Harvard began experimenting with massive open online courses (MOOCs), we were intrigued. Could this platform be applied successfully to the private sector? Moreover, could it be used to teach people the skills they need to succeed in today's digital economy?

Of course, we believed from the outset that the answer was "yes." And the attention we've gotten from the press since we launched has validated this assumption. Inc. wrote about our role in training tomorrow's workforce. Aquent Gymnasium was called a "game changer" on Forbes.com. Fast Company described how we were hacking hack schools. And FOX Business News said we were "training workers the Netflix way."

Furthermore, we've enjoyed a number of opportunities to share our course research and experience with MOOCs in a number of prominent venues.

The preliminary research on our forthcoming UX Fundamentals course led to an article on Wired.com explaining why your UX designer won't be the next Steve Jobs. This research also led to pieces on the convergence of design disciplines as well as the UX Design Paradox (that UX practitioners, who should be communication specialists, are not always skilled at communicating their perspective to business leaders and other stakeholders).

Finally, we talked about reinventing MOOCs for the real world on Boston.com. At Recruiter.com, we described how recruiters, armed with MOOCs, could address the skills gap. And we even recorded a podcast with MarketingProfs on MOOCs for marketing.

What's Next?

As far as the future is concerned, we’re going to keep experimenting and innovating. In May, we introduced short-format classes dubbed “Gym Shorts.” Each Gym Short is about an hour long and, as you might expect, completion rates average around 30% for them.

Current Gym Shorts cover time estimation and time management, Bootstrap 3.0, and Node.js. Upcoming Gym Shorts will focus on platforms and tools ranging from WordPress and Sketch 3 to SASS, CodeKit, and Google Analytics.

We also have a number of new full-length courses on the way. UX Fundamentals will go live in the next couple weeks followed by an updated version of our popular Coding for Designers. Fall courses will include JavaScript Foundations and Writing for Web and Mobile.

Beyond that, we will continue working with clients to identify the most in-demand skills and working with our talented instructors to create great courses.

We’ll also continue providing today’s digital professionals the training they need to find and do great work. Which, in the end, is what this is all about.

“I don't think we could have predicted the amazing success we've had in our first year of Gymnasium,” says program director Andrew Miller.

“And, sure, the numbers are very encouraging,” he added, “but it’s the emails we receive from our students that are the most gratifying part of this endeavor. Whether they’re telling us that they had tried to learn something a number of times in the past, and it was only our instruction that resonated with them, or sharing their excitement about getting a new job as a result of Gymnasium, we’re making a real difference for a lot of people.”

Image Credit (Creative Commons): Mathieu Plourde.

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