Boeing's Tailor-Made Learning Initiative Takes Flight

The aircraft maker's dev team needed a way to learn new tech skills. The solution? A custom e-learning curriculum, developed with MIT and edX.

Learning never ends, especially for employees in highly-specialized industries that utilize ever-evolving technology. As industries go, few are more specialized than aircraft design and manufacturing—and few companies are more committed to riding the cutting edge of technology than aerospace giant Boeing.

To meet the challenge of closing the skills gap for its 150,000 employees, Boeing is among the growing ranks of companies that are taking control of continuing education by developing customized massive open online courses (MOOCs) to train their workforces in crucial new skills.

“There’s a lag between [academia] and innovation at the edge of where we design and compete,” says Dr. Michael Richey, Associate Technical Fellow and Chief Learning Scientist at Boeing.

MOOCs—which offer unlimited participation and open access to self-paced learning via the web—first became popular nearly six years ago as affordable alternatives to expensive certifications and degrees. Recently, companies have started to embrace MOOCs, encouraging staff to enroll in courses offered by providers such as edXUdacity and Coursera. Now, Boeing and other firms are taking the next logical step—namely, developing targeted, company-specific MOOCs that ensure employees are up to speed on the latest technology trends.

Deep Learning Outside Academia

To help Boeing engineers and developers refresh essential skills and gain new ones, Boeing partnered with MIT and edX to design a course that covers the latest in large-scale systems integration. The field is a core competency for all Boeing engineers and developers, but—thanks to the growth of AI and advances in machine-to-machine and human-to-machine interaction—it’s evolved beyond what many of Boeing’s engineers learned in school.

“Whether it’s advanced three-dimensional imaging, or advanced three-dimensional graphics and data access, you don’t see that in colleges,” says Dr. Richey.

The key to the course’s success, meanwhile, was baked into its design—it was developed for Boeing employees by Boeing itself.

Charting a Personal Path to Learning

To design its first MOOC, Boeing brought together its own internal experts with leading researchers from MIT’s Architecture and Systems Engineering Lab. Together, they built a course surveying four major topics in large-scale systems integration, with each section taking roughly 20 hours over three-to-five weeks (85 hours total) to complete.

Unlike traditional classroom learning, the course doesn’t follow a standard, lecture-based format. Although students still earn a credit to demonstrate mastery, the path to that credit is less linear, but, Dr. Richey argues, more effective.

After an initial assessment, the course offers a range of interactive, curated materials, including documents, videos and links to outside resources. Learners can skip familiar content, come back to challenging areas and use social features to participate in discussions. A final assessment determines learners’ competency levels and whether they’ve earned the credit.

As more students complete the course, backend analytics are revealing something Dr. Richey says he suspected all along: Higher engagement breeds better understanding. Students who spend more time digging deeply into the material, interacting with peers and revisiting content perform better in the course than do those who follow linear trajectories.

“Cognitive psychologists call this interweaving,” Dr. Richey notes. “We all do it. We read a little something, then we try to perform a task and realize we didn't fully understand. So, we go back to the reading, then go back to the task itself. This interweaving drives deep metacognition and anchors knowledge. It’s the difference between earning 71 percent and barely passing, and earning 99 percent.”

The Secret Recipe for Ongoing Education

Conventional MOOCs have earned a reputation for poor course-completion rates. Boeing’s course, however, boasts a 94 percent completion rate. Part of this success can be attributed to the fact that the course isn’t free and is suggested to employees by Boeing. (The course costs $1,100 for Boeing employees, but the company covers the cost. Non-employees, meanwhile, have to pay $2,200 to enroll.)

Pleased with the results, Boeing is designing more courses for the edX platform that follow a similar recipe—identify a skill gap and develop targeted material to fill it.

And it’s safe to assume that more companies will follow Boeing’s lead in designing customized courses for their own employees. With developers facing complex emerging technologies like AI, the need to gain new skills and sharpen existing ones has never been more urgent. Companies have vested interests in their workforces mastering the latest and greatest technologies—and, with custom-designed MOOCs, they now have invaluable tools to help their employees do just that.

Maria Minsker
By Maria Minsker | April 11, 2018