It's no secret that companies and nonprofits are struggling to find the help they need. The challenge extends across fields and borders: A recent report shows that pervasive skills shortages across all industries contributed to tens of millions of unfilled vacancies, including both entry-level and experienced positions, across 30 countries in early 2013.

Online learning environments, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), may offer one solution. These communities of lifelong learners—people with diverse perspectives who actively pursue voluntary learning opportunities—are powerful, untapped sources of creative solutions and human capital.

In recent months, initiatives such as Coursolve have worked to cultivate this potential, facilitating projects in which students address real-world needs posted by organizations. Early explorations of such partnerships, which promise to enrich student learning while providing organizations with added brainpower, have shown returns for organizations that build mutually beneficial collaborations with students. Here are three ways that we’ve seen companies and nonprofits benefit:

Sourcing innovative ideas from a diverse, global audience

In September, the Center for Talent Innovation was the latest to confirm that diverse, open-minded teams drive innovation that can lead organizations to greater success. When Pratik Mehta, team lead at Saama Technologies, joined the University of Washington’s Introduction to Data Science MOOC, he experienced this firsthand. Mehta proposed a project to analyze sentiments surrounding the US healthcare system using data from the Twitter stream. Within weeks, more than 50 students from around the world had joined; six months later, Mehta continues to collaborate with many of them to develop original ideas for his company and the students’ own ventures.

Other organizations found support from unlikely sources. A consultant for a Dutch hospital told the story of one student who, despite having a biology-centric resume that seemed irrelevant to data science, delivered an excellent algorithm to flag outlying patient care profiles. Still, other firms reported discovering new techniques from students that helped update the company’s skill sets.

Overall, learners proved capable of helping organizations explore new areas of opportunity. Of the 100 organizations that partnered with students, 72 percent of those we surveyed reported receiving help they had not anticipated, while 71 percent said the help they received was as good as or better than help from their own staff.

Connecting with talent for advice and recruiting

Students who not only enroll in online courses, but also take the initiative to guide other course participants are self-motivated leaders who can be assets to organizations. At Coursolve, when we posted a need of our own for students in a University of Virginia (UVA) MOOC, Foundations of Business Strategy, we found and worked with several such leaders and are now recruiting one of them to join our team.

Many other organizations encountered learners that already had relevant expertise. When the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education posted a need for students in the UVA strategy course, they connected with a former McKinsey consultant—also passionate about refugee issues—who offered experience, and strategic insights and support. Other organizations made similar discoveries: A video game startup connected with a game translator, and an IT firm met a 40-year veteran salesman in the same field.

More broadly, online learning environments present an opportunity for social sector organizations to inexpensively promote their work to an international audience. By engaging directly with students, organizations large and small can highlight their culture and values while seeking support on challenges they face.

Working with individuals of different cultures and perspectives

In addition to sourcing ideas and talent, online collaborations can enable organizations to develop the skills of current employees. Employees managing partnerships with students get exposure to all aspects of project management, including collaboration across time zones and cultural differences. These challenging experiences present opportunities for professional development, honing transferable, cross-cultural competencies among staff. They also enable organizations to develop a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of those they wish to serve.

At Coursolve, we recruited help from data science students to analyze web traffic on our platform. We found that learners had diverse skill sets, varying competencies, and unique sources of motivation—all influenced by their diverse backgrounds and cultural contexts. These students introduced us to new industry tools such as Tableau and Gephi, and we learned project management techniques such as breaking assignments into discrete, manageable tasks and providing milestones to maintain project momentum. Just as importantly, coordinating these efforts across countries helped us develop cultural competencies that will assist us in meeting the needs of people from all around the world.

What’s next?

The anecdotes we’ve shared represent just the first wave of many such partnerships, meaning that much “learning about learning” lies ahead. These stories suggest that the new trend toward what we are calling “MOOC-sourcing” is powered by more than just hot air.

Over the coming months and years, online education will continue to provide opportunities for both students and for professionals hoping to collaborate with them and learn something along the way. For social sector organizations seeking to identify and develop talent and creativity, it’s a great place to start.