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Tackling Real-World Problems in a MOOC: The Student Response

Tackling Real-World Problems in a MOOC: The Student Response
As competency-based learning and MOOCs become more and more popular, it’s important to combine the two so students can gain practical, workforce-applicable skills with low barriers.

Shibaji Mukherjee knew what he wanted out of “Foundations of Business Strategy,” a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. A 16-year veteran of the IT sector in India, Mukherjee was taking the Coursera course in the hopes of eventually switching into a career in analytics or management consulting. When he discovered students could complete business analyses for real organizations through the course, he began looking for a match.

On the course forums, Mukherjee found an American analytics company to work with. He emailed the person who had posted the request; after exchanging contact information, they quickly got to work. Mukherjee would Skype with the company once every two weeks and regularly keep in contact through email in between. For the final two weeks of the course, Mukherjee spent up to two hours daily researching, writing and editing his case study.

Was It Worth It?

“To me, it definitely added value,” Mukherjee said. “I learned about the domain … If I had listened to a lecture on that, I wouldn’t have gotten the same material.”

In fact, Mukherjee said this final case study was his favorite portion of the entire course. He still speaks to his contact at the analytics company about once every two weeks, and looks forward to moving into the field in the future.

Mukherjee was just one of more than 80,000 students enrolled in “Foundations of Business Strategy.” Back in April, I wrote about the opportunity presented for students to solve real-world problems in MOOCs and the hope they could help students develop workforce competencies and close the skills gap. Now that the course is over, we’ve surveyed almost 1,000 students and spoken with a few directly to get their insights firsthand.

Real-World Problem Solving: A New Trend?

Post-course survey data suggests students found the real-world problem solving component of the course to be valuable. More than 85 percent of student respondents indicated they felt confident they would be able to help businesses address their strategic challenges. In addition, more than 88 percent said having real-world problem solving would be important to them in future courses.

Of the students we spoke with directly, we noticed a few specific trends. First, many who had dropped the course had done so because of outside time constraints. Some of these students had been in touch with organizations but never committed; in almost all cases, students who expressed interest were able to get in contact with at least one organization.

Second, working with organizations of different sizes presented different challenges. Students who worked with larger companies said, while their overall experience was positive, they doubted whether they had made an impact. “I chose a very big multinational, and so I think they will not care too much about my recommendations,” one student noted. On the other hand, some students mentioned the lack of available data in early-stage startups, making the task of analysis more difficult.

Third, what students and organizations gained was closely linked to their level of engagement. Mukherjee, who spent more than 12 hours a week on the course for the final two weeks, was an anomaly. A majority of students reported spending less than six hours per week on the course and less than three percent spent more than 12. But what he and other motivated students got out of the experience was, in their minds, well worth the effort.

Finally, students had clear and specific suggestions for improving the course. Many students were frustrated by peer review grading, a very common feature in MOOCs. In the post-course survey, 49 percent of students indicated they were only “somewhat confident” or “not confident” in peer review. On the forums, students had regularly complained about getting zeros from peers.

Another common theme among students was the desire for clear information. On the forums, students expressed confusion about the expected format and submission process for the final project, which instructors and TAs quickly worked to remedy. Meanwhile, 33 percent of respondents did not feel they had sufficient information on the organization they chose to analyze, and a lack of information was the most-cited reason for switching organizations.

Overall, this first experiment with real-world problem solving in MOOCs seemed to produce positive results for students. Students who were willing to stick with the material, put in the time and tolerate the peer grading system found it added value to their course experience and enabled them to better develop their skills. Those who, like Mukherjee, went above and beyond got the most out of the experience.

Next Steps in Building Competency

Already, another MOOC — “Introduction to Data Science” by theUniversityofWashington— has enabled students to work on real-world projects posed by a wide range of non-profits, small enterprises and community organizations. These courses are part of the broader Coursolve initiative, which matches courses and organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems.

Building competency in MOOCs through problem solving has already shown extraordinary promise, and we’re just getting started. Let’s explore how we can continue to improve the experiences of lifelong learners to help them develop the skills necessary for success.

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