Online learning platforms ‘may become graduate talent brokers’

Corporations increasingly keen on hiring learners straight from online learning platforms, edX business head claims

October 19, 2021
John Schwartz
Source: UAEU
John Schwartz

Major graduate employers are asking whether they can headhunt students enrolled on skills courses delivered by online learning platforms rather than recruiting graduates straight out of university, a conference has heard.

John Schwartz, head of business development at edX, an online course provider created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012 that now has 44 million learners, told Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit that several leading international employers had contacted his company to see how they could access information about students on or recent graduates of courses relevant to their organisations.

“Some of the biggest organisations in the world are now targeting us and saying, ‘We are interested in giving [learners] an interview,” said Mr Schwartz, who added that many employers were “quite prescriptive” about the training given to their staff, which often meant that they favoured bespoke online courses built in partnership with industry than traditional undergraduate degrees.

“I am not saying that the degree isn’t important, but the skills gap [between what employers demand and graduates offer] is definitely getting wider, and corporations are more than willing to consider alternatives to degrees,” insisted Mr Schwartz at THE’s first in-person international summit for almost two years, being held in Dubai in association with the United Arab Emirates University.

By “mining their new employees” from online course providers, corporations and governments could “cut down on the costs of [staff] acquisition and reduce the time spent” on recruiting, explained Mr Schwartz, whose company was recently bought out in an $800 million (£560 million) deal by for-profit edtech 2U and is aiming to grow to at least 100 million learners.

Speaking to THE, Mr Schwartz explained that his company was exploring the legal issues, including data and privacy, around facilitating direct access for employers to online learners, but he said he believed that most students would be receptive to the idea of being approached by industry for a job.

If that were to take off, it could eventually see edX and Coursera, the world’s biggest online course provider with 87 million active learners in 2021, becoming “brokers for graduate talent” as well as providers of course content and credentials.

“I sit on the front line with corporations and governments globally, and everyone is challenged when trying to find graduates with the requisite skills needed for the job,” said Mr Schwartz, who argued that the decision by Google to create a $1,000 training course indicated some of the dissatisfaction in the training provided by universities.

“If universities globally were turning out perfectly qualified job candidates, enterprises [like Google] would not be getting in the mix,” he said.

Any residual scepticism about the value of online or blended learning found in some countries had largely evaporated during the pandemic, when a huge number of universities had turned to edX, which provided 3,000 online courses for free, and to other online platforms to provide the quality content that students demanded.

According to Mr Schwartz, edX was now “a tool that any government, enterprise or university will have to utilise, for reasons of time efficiency, cost efficiency and the scale at which tech is changing the entire global landscape”, because, he argued, “blended learning is here to stay”.

Defending the sale of edX to a for-profit provider, a move that has been criticised by some MIT staff, Mr Schwartz said access to new investment and expertise would be a “huge benefit” in helping the company expand.

“We were running as fast as we could, and although we had some of the most talented people I’ve ever been involved with, we were always limited by size and scope,” said Mr Schwartz.

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