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Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

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A massive open online course is just that — up to several thousand people can take the same MOOC, simultaneously and without cost, through sites such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

One MOOC on machine learning, for example, has 27,323 students enrolled, according to Udacity’s website.

So given the increasing demand for workers with cybersecurity and data analytics skills, could MOOCs be one of the keys to federal training needs?

Ryan Corey believes they can help. Corey has been in the cybersecurity field for 13 years, and in January, he co-founded Cybrary, a company that offers free courses on a range of cyber skills.

Corey said he launched Cybrary in part because he thinks people — and federal workers in particular — shouldn’t have to pay big bucks for IT and cybersecurity training and because it was clear that cyber skills should be more broadly distributed.

“You’ve got some of the United States’ most talented professionals who are protecting these organizations, and yet attacks are getting through,” Corey said.

Cybrary has thousands of participants with .gov and .mil email addresses, he said. Yet he believes the government should be doing more to train IT professionals in cybersecurity.

“I know for a fact they’re not doing enough,” he said. “It’s too expensive to send somebody to a class. It’s relatively inaccessible, and it’s very impractical. They’re working with restricted budgets.”

Corey noted that during the budget sequestration and government shutdown of 2013, training was one of the first things to be cut. He was working at a brick-and-mortar cybersecurity training company at the time.

“No one came to training the entire length of it,” he recalled. “You had no one from any government agency there with us taking classes.”

So far, Corey said, Cibrary averages 1,000 to 1,200 new registered users a day. In July, 84,000 people took classes through the company.

To stay afloat without charging tuition, Cybrary relies on advertising and fees students must pay if they want certificates of completion. The company also offers an enterprise platform that teaches compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act and end-user security awareness training for organizations. He has even turned to Kickstarter for funding.

Working professionals who are already trained in a field and want to increase their expertise tend to use MOOCs the most. But providers are still learning how to attract and, more important, retain students for the duration of a course. According to a 2013 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, MOOCs only average a 6 percent completion rate.

MIT and Harvard University, however, published a report earlier this year analyzing data from 68 MOOCs offered by those two schools and found that participation tends to decline initially and then stabilize. The study also found that computer science courses are more likely to have better participation — 68,000 compared to 19,000 for other types of courses.

Certification also affects participation rates. More than half of MOOC students are looking for a certification of some kind, and most programs charge for that proof of accomplishment. Those fees are relatively modest — usually less than $100 — and students seeking a certificate complete courses at a far greater rate.

But not all certificates will translate into the continuing education credits that are recognized for federal training purposes. Interested students must work with their agencies to confirm credit or else dive into MOOCs strictly for the learning and skip the credentials.

MOOCs to try

For those who want to boost their IT skills for free, MOOCs offer a vast array of relevant courses:

  • Coursera and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business offer “Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management.” The course teaches students what is required to plan and execute large-scale projects and gives them an understanding of agile project management principles.
  • Coursera and the Georgia Institute of Technology offer “Human-Computer Interaction: User Experience and User Interface Design.” This course teaches the design cycle of user interface design and requires participants to take a capstone exam to earn a certificate.
  • Cybrary offers more than a dozen courses in cybersecurity, including cryptography, malware analysis and computer forensics. There is also free online training toward becoming a Certified Information Systems Security Professional.
  • edX and MIT teach “Introduction to Probability: The Science of Uncertainty,” a course on probabilistic modeling and statistical interference and their role in analyzing data to make sound predictions. College-level calculus is a prerequisite.
  • edX and Microsoft offer “Data Science and Machine Learning Essentials,” which teaches data acquisition, preparation, exploration and visualization using Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning, R and Python to create a cloud-based data science solution.
  • FutureLearn and the Open University offer an introductory cybersecurity course on understanding online security and how to protect one’s digital life. It introduces participants to different types of malware and core concepts such as network security, cryptography and risk management.
  • Udacity’s “Data Visualization and D3.js” course explains the fundamentals of data visualization and teaches students how to use the popular JavaScript-based library of visualization tools.  

About the Author

Bianca Spinosa is an Editorial Fellow at FCW.

Spinosa covers a variety of federal technology news for FCW including workforce development, women in tech, and the intersection of start-ups and agencies. Prior to joining FCW, she was a TV journalist for more than six years, reporting local news in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Spinosa is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Writing at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia.

Click here for previous articles by Spinosa, or connect with her on Twitter: @BSpinosa.


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