I read A New Use for MOOCs: Real-World Problem Solving with interest on many levels: pedagogy, innovative partnerships, leveraging massive groups of people in novel ways.
A lot is to be said for the work being done by Zafrin Nurmohamed and Nabeel Gillani and their organization, Coursolve. Coursolve is designed to connect organizations (including not-for-profits) with courses. Students in the course get an opportunity to solve real-world problems. Organizations get brains working on their behalf. A New Use for MOOCs: Real-World Problem Solving highlights outcomes from a MOOC on foundations of business strategy, in which 100 organizations benefited from final projects conducted by some number (not sure I am clear on how many) of the 90,000 enrolled participants.
Here’s my problem with this model: for-profit corporate enterprises unfairly benefit from the power dynamics here. The pretense is that these enterprises “give students an opportunity” to work on a real-world problem. But they ignore the most important real world problem to work on: Why don’t you hire these students?
Let me set aside the work being done in this model with resource-strapped not-for-profits or social enterprises. My focus is on resource-rich organizations. Here’s their justification for participating: By “giving” a real-world problem to this course they are “helping” students learn about business. The students will be much better prepared to find a job because they have had this experience. So – it’s a gift from us (corporations) to you (eager students).
The problem (unless I am missing where this happens) is that there is little commitment on the organization’s side. The students are committing a lot of time, their brain power, their best thinking under a belief that this work effort will land them a meaningful job. The organizations commit some time. The also get a free, potentially innovative solution to a real-world problem. (This begs the question: What are your paid employees doing?). They get the feel-good PR bit about “helping students.” And they also get to ignore the central problem in all of this: Most of these massively motivated students won’t be able to find meaningful work.
There is simply not equivalent risk taken by the two parties involved in this transaction. That’s what bothers me.
A couple of asides. I am guilty as charged as well. In my work I establish similar relationships between businesses and the graduate program in which I teach. Smaller scale but similar model. To be honest, I have actually seen how this model can transform an individual student’s career prospects. But doing this takes a lot of work – by the student and in our case by staff members who do a great job in matching students with potential new employers. It’s a great model on a small scale – but even then, there are no guarantees.
So this has me just thinking out loud about models. If we could rewrite the conditions of these types of transactions — between resource rich organizations and students in courses — what would that look like?
I am intentionally separating out not-for-profits and social enterprises here. I see some additional, social benefit in this match up. It offers the opportunity for students to understand larger social issues and become involved in addressing them. Or understanding the complexity in addressing them. But even this is problematic. It still doesn’t lead to new jobs, or potentially new funding for these enterprises so they can hire more people. But at the end of the day I would feel better working on an innovative strategy for an organization supporting cost-effective public transportation than, say, a global corporation looking at opening new markets for their quick-serve restaurants.
Look. There is really good work in the effort to match organizations and educational institutions. Or any real-world problem and educational institutions. I love the craziness that happens when you mashup diverse ideas and people and a single problem. Done well it can lead to lots of innovation – and I certainly respect just how difficult a proposition that is. So tip of my hat to anyone taking on that challenge. I am eager to see what comes of the Coursolve effort because it is innovative and we should learn from their experiences.
But I go back to rewriting the transaction, especially in massive learning environments: If we could rewrite the conditions of these types of transactions — between resource rich organizations and students in courses — what would that look like?