Why I’m bothered by ‘solving real-world problems with MOOCs’

origin_3580691356I 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?

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3 thoughts on “Why I’m bothered by ‘solving real-world problems with MOOCs’

  1. Hi Jeff, thanks for your thought provoking post. I’m also interested in the potential of Moocs for innovative teaching/learning and this was Coursolve’s model was intriguing. I see the point you’re making – there can be a similar issue with a lot of internships, which are either low paid or not at all in some industries. I agree you should apply a dose of healthy cynicism when dealing with large for profit corporations. If it makes any difference, the article does say that over 50% of the students in that course were industry professionals – which I take to mean that they already had a day job – and the students were only committing 2 hrs / week over 6 weeks to the project. So most of them aren’t actually after a job (maybe they just want the experience and/or networking opportunity?), and they’re not exactly picking up the slack of actual employees. That said, if students develop an innovative solution that later saves or earns the organisation millions and without getting even recognition (let alone monetary reward) in return, then that does seem to be an inequitable relationship. Still, you can’t discount the value of the experience and professional networks that the students will have formed (both with each other and contacts in the organisation) from working with the organisation…so it would be interesting to get the student’s point of view and see whether they consider the partnership exploitative.
    I don’t have an answer about alternative models, but it would be interesting to see if one emerges.


    1. Thanks Tanya for adding your thinking and insights here. Appreciate the addition re: the numbers of students who were working professionals and time commitments. That does make a huge difference. In my own experience here, those folks who are currently working can get a great deal of benefit from peeking in on another organizational challenge and working on it (something that is difficult to do outside of a course context). And well put re: getting the students’ point of view here…

      So maybe (thinking out loud here) the challenge is to think about this problem with end-goals of the participating students in mind. There are those who have work and are just looking to further develop as professionals; there are those who have work and maybe want to switch careers; and there are those trying to find their first meaningful career work. (There may be other shades…but this kinda fits with my experience). Then the question becomes: Are we doing right re: each of these sets of expectations? Obviously I don’t have an answer…just thinking out loud again.

      I think what first set me off on this was the sheer numbers involved. 90K students. I thought: Wow. What if I had 90K minds ready to do work and then went out and took bids for this resource? Totally flips the power dynamics, I would think. (Unless of course – no bids come in!).

      But thanks again – this is definitely an area I’m interested in exploring more.


  2. Hello again Jeff, I’m definitely a fan of thinking out loud and exploring ideas – that’s how the best debates and innovative ideas emerge! So appreciate you doing so. I had a few more thoughts as well….firstly in terms of the number of students – 90k. That’s 90k of enrolled students only – what tends to happen in a lot of Moocs is that you get a helluva lot of people enrolling (which is part of the reason why they’ve had so much publicity I think – that, and the number of high profile universities jumping on the bandwagon). However, of these tens of thousands, you also get a lot of drop outs. In the Coursera Mooc (on Gamification) that I participated in a few months ago, there were over 62k enrollments, but only 5.5k who completed with a passing score by the end. So the original no. of enrollments usually doesn’t represent the total number of active participants. That said, with 90k enrollments, even if 90% of students drop out, that still leaves a substantial pool of active participants.
    The other thing I was thinking as I read your reply was that, whilst there may be a large number of minds ready to work for these corporates, it’s probably pretty challenging, given these numbers, to get the right mix of minds working together to produce top notch innovative ideas. We’ve probably all had experiences of doing group work as students where some of the group don’t contribute, there are personality clashes, or the dynamic just isn’t quite right. So I think just looking at the numbers can be a little misleading.
    I’m quite intrigued now about this Coursolve model – perhaps the best way to make a judgement about the equity of the model is to become an active student participant and see what the experience is like first hand….thinking I might look into doing this!
    Thanks for your post and response Jeff, it’s been great exploring these ideas with you.


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