Heard of MOOCs yet? They're massive, they're open, they're online and they're courses – and it looks like they're here to stay. Once the preserve of the academic fraternity, MOOCs are now making inroads into the business world and are starting to be a genuine value proposition for companies both large and small.

But first things first, what exactly are they? Essentially a MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. As well as providing access to traditional course materials such as videos, readings and problem sets, they provide interactive user forums that help build a community of students and interested parties.

Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, a provider of MOOCs that is owned and funded by the Open University, is positively evangelical about what he sees as a learning revolution. "I think it's potentially a very exciting transformation of the whole training and personal development sector. Effectively, an employee sat at their desk can access free, high-quality online courses from some of the world's top academics and universities across a whole range of subjects."

Nelson is keen to point out that the key is to be able to offer this learning on demand whenever and wherever to individuals, rather than having to deliver it face-to-face in physical locations with all the associated costs.

Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of ALISON, another provider of MOOCs, is also adamant that MOOCs are no longer the preserve of the academic world. "A lot of people think that MOOCs can only come from universities, which is nonsense. The skill levels that people need are not necessarily degrees. The real shortage is bringing people up at the bottom of the pyramid, from learning simple literacy to foreign language skills. When it comes to IT skills, for example, we focus on everything from teaching you what a mouse is, all the way to Excel and creating a website."

Feerick is at pains to point out that ALISON's MOOCs are truly targeted at the workplace. "They help you get a job, help you become a better employee and generally upskill people. We also provide a lot of secondary school content, as there are a lot of people in workplaces around the world that need to access this type of material, such as maths and statistics." What's more, nearly 60% of ALISON's almost three million learners worldwide are women.

So what are the alternatives open to enterprises seeking to embrace MOOCs? According to Professor Jeff Haywood, vice principal and chief information officer of the University of Edinburgh, corporates could always go it alone and build their own MOOC and offer it out through their company website.

By way of example, Haywood tells of a recent discussion with a senior figure of a big software/hardware company. "He said that their products were so complicated that they should really build a MOOC to help their customers understand how to choose from the big range and complexity of the offerings they have. Instead of having a boring user guide for the really complex stuff, they could turn it into a course, but not a course that you take on your own. By producing a MOOC all these people come together in the same place. So you get a combination of a structured learning process and a community," Haywood explains, before adding a cautionary note that it might be difficult to get traction by doing it alone like this.

Alternatively, organisations could simply look at business-focused MOOCs that are already out there and consider whether they are relevant to their employees or their business. Or, thirdly, as a commercial organisation they could be identifying areas where they have expertise that they might like to offer to the world and perhaps partner with universities or existing MOOC providers to do something jointly.

It's this partnering option that Haywood thinks will be of most interest to companies. Despite FutureLearn's and ALISON's offerings, he still thinks the majority of MOOCs on offer at the moment are predominantly academic and not terribly advanced in subject matter, which may drive the production of more relevant material. "I suspect that most companies wanting to use them for training and development of their employees might find them a bit limited," he says.

"However, if they are able to partner with universities to help them shoulder the cost of producing them and co-badge them, then they may find that they get the best of both worlds out of a partnership."

By producing MOOCs Haywood believes companies could be promoting their brand and should also treat it as a reputation-building exercise. "Don't forget we're talking about global audiences here," he says. "Essentially, MOOCs can be seen as a form of massive advertising."

What should also be driving the production of more business-oriented MOOCs, according to Feerick, is the whole issue of accreditation and certification, which he believes is far too restrictive for corporates. As he points out, what are traditionally certified around the world are certifications that make money for the accreditation bodies, because there is volume in the likes of law and accounting. But corporates often have very sophisticated and specific products and they want certifications around what they supply. "Unfortunately, what you don't see are certifications for running the electrical generator for Siemens because there are only a small number of people that do it," he argues.

"However, the fact is you can put up that content online in the form of a MOOC and make it freely available to a lot of people, this works really well in the corporate world," continues Feerick. "I think a lot of organisations see the degree-type qualifications coming out of university as too general. We're not talking about PHDs, but basic workplace learning. I think this is the exciting story for CIOs worldwide – it's the fact that certification for corporates is exploding and the cost to supply this can be very low. That's why we're currently working with a lot of brand name corporates to provide certifications on their products in this way."

ALISON effectively takes content, allows it to be accessed for free online, wraps it with relevant advertising, and then offers premium services around that, such as the certification referred to above. And Feerick positively champions the fact that the courses are also relatively short – they offer certificates that are anything from one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours long and a diploma that takes about nine hours.

"CIOs want to know that their employees are open to new learning," he adds, "and if their staff are staying sharp in a whole different array of areas through MOOCs, it can only be a good thing. And if you're a company hiring somebody, you could always say 'we'd love to have you on board, but I'd like you to go and do a project management MOOC first' – with ALISON hopefully. In some ways, we're the Ryanair of learning and we're pushing the onus on to the employees to do the training before they go to the corporates. By doing this you become so much more valuable to an organisation."

Ultimately, however, the ball is in the court of the companies. The message is that MOOCs certainly aren't the preserve of the academic world. It's people in normal day-jobs all over the world who are showing the most interest. They want access to high-quality courses that will help further their careers and FutureLearn's Nelson believes organisations should respond to this demand. "Although we must be careful not to simply position MOOCs as a distribution-saving on existing types of training and there has, admittedly, been a lot of over-hyping of them and they don't really bring the walls tumbling down on the way we've learned in business before, there is still a fundamental change going on and huge opportunities are there for the taking."

For Nelson, CIOs should recognise more than anyone else in an organisation the ways in which digital is impacting every aspect of a business's value chain. So why would they allow the training and development side of the business to be affected any less positively by the arrival of digital than the technology or supply side. "Start experimenting yesterday" is Nelson's advice. "Start learning what might be possible with MOOCs, make your mistakes early and learn from them."

And don't worry if you're a small business; size really doesn't matter in the world of MOOCs. In fact, Edinburgh University is exploring how to construct MOOCs and target them specifically at SMEs. As Hayward explains: "Rather than the big corporations that tend to know how to do training and development, SMEs that don't necessarily have training budgets are the ones that would gain the maximum value if there were MOOCs around for them on such subjects as entrepreneurship or business startups, for example."

Yes, MOOCs have their detractors – those that say individuals are being beguiled by the 'free' label attached to MOOCs and that they have no sustainable commercial business model, or that they have security or quality control issues to be addressed, or even poor completion rates. But Nelson counters this: "These are early days for MOOCs and we're still scratching the surface of what's possible in terms of flexibility, personalisation, adaptability and so much more. I find it staggering that people are down on the fact that millions more people now have the capacity to learn. The world of higher education is being smashed open. What's not to like? And it can only go in a wide variety of really interesting directions."