Everyone’s talking about massively open online courses (MOOCs) these days. Just before the New York Times named 2012 the year of the MOOC, Time magazine dedicated its October Issue, titled “Reinventing College,” to an analysis of the role that MOOCs could play in repairing our higher education system—a system that is becoming more expensive while failing to prepare a growing pool of students to succeed in the workforce.
To me, the most compelling part of the issue’s feature article was the story of an 11-year-old girl from Pakistan named Khadijah Niazi. She started a challenging college-level physics course on Udacity in late 2012 when the Pakistani government decided to block access to YouTube. However, her peers—other students from around the world—were determined to help her succeed. They banded together to ensure that Khadijah could access course lectures and assignments by sending her links to materials posted on private servers. She eventually finished the course with the highest distinction.
An article in early November in the Guardian told another story, this one about a Mongolian boy, Batthushig, who received a perfect score in edX’s offering of Circuits and Electronics through MIT. For some, this was no surprise. Looking back to the Fall 2011 Stanford artificial intelligence course that launched the MOOC revolution, the instructors found that the top 400 performers in the course weren’t Stanford students.
These stories reveal the most powerful attribute of MOOCs: their ability to open up channels to some of the most intelligent, motivated people around the world in the name of knowledge dissemination. But while using these channels simply to help spread knowledge is exciting, using them to facilitate new content creation could be revolutionary. How can we engage the talented, passionate, and often educationally disenfranchised students in MOOCs to help solve real-world problems?
The notion of connecting with large bodies of people to address outstanding challenges is not without precedent. Crowdsourcing has gained popularity over the past decade as a means of leveraging access to millions of people with diverse backgrounds to solve real-world problems. Platforms such as Innocentive, ChallengePost, and Kaggle, to name a few, have used crowdsourcing models to address problems across disciplines, in both industry and academia.
But MOOCs are particularly well positioned to encourage and benefit from crowdsourced problem-solving. In fact, educational theories highlight numerous benefits to real-world collaborations. Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of student interaction with peers to maximize learning outcomes. Activity theory supports the notion that students from different cultures may look at the same problem and come up with different solutions, each valid in its own right. Situated cognition argues that for educational content to truly sink in, it cannot be separated from its domain of application. Using MOOCs to facilitate real-world problem solving offers benefits to organizations that have problems; it can also help learners gain the skills and confidence they need to be productive members of society.
Stanford’s Venture Lab is already bringing together teams of students from different countries to envision new products. But there’s something to be said about integrating students into a web of existing challenges and asking them to innovate. We could enable students in a data science MOOC to share insights into how a resource-strapped nonprofit could improve its services, or empower those taking an artistic programming course to create infographics that help NGOs communicate their social impact to donors. The possibilities are endless. There’s no telling what motivated, passionate students with unique cultural perspectives can accomplish if they believe that what they create can change the world.
I’m excited to explore real-world problem solving in MOOCs through my master’s dissertation this year. Professor Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia and I are piloting this idea to see how students in his business strategy MOOC may provide recommendations to small-enterprises and nonprofits on their strategic direction. Over the next few months, I’ll be working on a team to scale this approach through the development of Coursolve, a platform that connects organizations with courses to empower students to solve real-world problems.
In a world where resources are scarce and education systems often struggle to prepare students for the future, it makes sense to empower students to address real challenges. Let’s use MOOCs to promote learning from the world, for the world.
Update: Coursolve connects courses with organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. Organizations are encouraged to post their business strategy needs to Coursolve to seek "micro consulting" from learners in a massively open online course: Foundations of Business Strategy. The course launches on September 2nd and will last for six weeks. Read more about this opportunity.