Shaping the future of work

How an online MIT course and subsequent book influenced learners studying rapid changes in the workplace.


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If you had told MIT professor Tom Kochan 10 years ago that teaching online courses would forever change his outlook on education, he’d have said, “I don’t think so.”

Today, Kochan has come around entirely to the power of thoughtfully constructed online learning experiences after spending six years creating and refining successive iterations of Shaping the Work of the Future, an MITx course that has influenced not only a global audience of tens of thousands of enrollees, but also changed Kochan’s approach to teaching residential courses for MIT Sloan School of Management MBA students. “I’ve learned so much about how to teach to a larger audience, and to learn from them, as they contribute to the discussions and respond to the materials, and how they share their own experiences in the workforces,” he says.

Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management and co-director for the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, had no interest in teaching online when MIT first began developing massive open online courses (MOOCs) in 2011. The classroom veteran and MIT faculty member since 1980 began to think differently when he realized the platform’s power to take new knowledge out of the ivory tower and into the minds and hands of learners everywhere. He recalls, “I felt that we had a message to deliver to a larger audience out there, who aren’t in our MIT classes, people who are in the workforce and experience these changes.”

New perspectives on globalization, technology, and policy helped widen the scope of the course’s audience. The syllabus has evolved continually, keeping pace with rapid changes in the workplace over the last decade. Now the course, which is being archived after a hugely successful six-year run, has informed the new edition of Kochan’s book, “Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract,” published by Routledge.

Adapting to a changing world

The original run of the course used the previous edition of the book (co-authored with Lee Dyer, professor emeritus of human resource studies at Cornell University) as a core text. First published in 2015, the textbook was based on a course Kochan had taught at MIT Sloan. Over time, however, Kochan found that not only did the book need to be updated to reflect technological and societal changes, but also that the course’s students themselves were influencing how he thought about the course material. The latest edition of the book encompasses the breadth and depth of the MITx course’s global learning community, incorporating materials, examples, and results from MOOC learners throughout the book.

“Updating the book was really fun,” says Kochan. “It gave us a chance to show what we were learning from our students as well as from the ideas emerging in our MIT Task Force on Work of the Future.”

The new edition also includes a new chapter, “The New Social Contract,” which Kochan and Dyer drafted with learners in the 2020 Shaping the Work of the Future MITx course. This contract outlines responsibilities and duties of four sectors — education, labor, business, and government — in creating a thriving, dynamic, and equitable workforce. Government, for example, must raise minimum wages to a livable standard and provide subsidies and access to higher education for all; education in its turn must incorporate technical literacy and apprenticeship opportunities into its curricula. Labor must work with employers to represent the interests of the workforce and bring technology into the workplace in a way that enhances human work. Corporate leaders should prioritize funding for lifelong employee learning.

It’s a significant change in scope from the original book, and from the original MOOC, which Kochan says was aimed at young people first entering the job market. But over time, the course began to attract a much more diverse range of ages and experience than originally anticipated, including teachers and mid-career professionals. New technology became a regular source of debate, causing Kochan and his team to adapt the course to keep pace with industry innovations.

A community of learning

For Kochan, another key evolution of the course came with the addition of co-instructor Meghan Perdue in 2019, whom he describes as a “true partner.” Perdue first approached Kochan after he gave a presentation to the MITx Digital Learning Lab, where Perdue is a scientist. She had taken the course and shared her ideas with Kochan, who was so impressed that he asked her to review the syllabus as a whole and tell him what she’d change.

“We rewrote 90 percent of the course for the 2019 edition,” Perdue recalls. The changes seemed to resonate. “Learners really loved this class,” she says, describing how participants would “stick around,” remaining active on the discussion forums, adding hundreds of comments to posts, and responding to each other well after the course had ended.

The revamped course also benefited from the involvement of Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, who served as co-instructor for the course’s latest run. Findings from the Institute-wide, multi-year task force both informed and were informed by the conversations happening in Kochan’s course. Reynolds has since brought her expertise on workforce transformation to the White House: in March, she joined the Biden administration’s National Economic Council as special assistant to the president for manufacturing and economic development.

The timeliness of the subject matter helped build community. “A lot of people who were drawn to the topic were drawn to it with a sense of despair and anxiety,” Perdue says. “The course gave them a framework to think about their fears about the future, specifically for work and policy, in a way that they could understand, and had control over.”

“I have been inspired by the course to spend more time engaged in coaching and mentoring my staff; particularly those at the earliest stages of their careers,” said one learner from the 2020 course run. “Where I can, I will share some of course content and ideas. We need to build a generation of business leaders who see the world very differently. Who are purpose- and values-driven, yes. But most importantly who recognize those responsibilities begin close to home, in providing their people ‘decent jobs’ and human dignity.”

After a hugely successful six-year run, Kochan has decided to archive the Shaping the Future of Work course. He plans next to develop a follow-up course aimed at worker representatives on what he calls the “front line” of new technologies who need to know not only about design and implementation, but also the decision-making around how these technologies are adapted. In the deeply collaborative vein of its predecessor, this course will be created in partnership with the labor movement, the AFL-CIO Technology Institute, and with an activist group.

It’s a perfect next act for a professor who is equal parts academic and advocate. As Perdue puts it, “Tom is an evangelist. He’s a man on a mission to change the world.”