Published on 2013/04/11

Solving the Workplace Competency Problem with a MOOC

Solving the Workplace Competency Problem with a MOOC
As the value of higher education institutions faces increasing criticism, it’s important for low-cost programming to be developed that will teach workplace-relevant skills and competencies to students.

As an undergraduate student at Brown University, I had the opportunity to take a course that combined a study of philanthropy with a once-in-a-lifetime problem-solving experience. Students were divided into teams of six, given an issue to research and tasked with issuing a request for proposal (RFP) for a real $15,000 grant to local organizations in education or housing. To say this was a privilege would be a massive understatement. My team targeted its RFP towards programs to engage immigrant parents learning to speak English; one year later, we were pleased to find our grant had funded six months of productive literacy classes for 24 parents and children.

The course left no doubt in my mind that real-world problem solving in education has remarkable potential. In recent years, higher education institutions have struggled to prepare students to meet the shifting needs of an evolving workforce. Employers and thought leaders have expressed growing concern over the skills gap generated when students graduate without the competencies necessary to find success in the labor market. Policymakers have responded by ranking and scoring colleges based on the employment prospects and average income of their graduates.

In the midst of the fervor around career training, some are already reading the last rites of the liberal arts university. But experiences like mine show that when students have the opportunity to use their learning to solve real-world problems, otherwise-traditional coursework can provide students with enriched experiences and marketable skills. After graduation, while on a political campaign, I used many of the same tactics to motivate my volunteers that our leading grant applicants had used to inspire us in the philanthropy course. And, of course, the project helped empower a resource-strapped non-profit to do meaningful, community-based work.

The power of real-world problem solving isn’t anything new; companies from Chrysler to IBM have used it to train their workers for years. More recently, educational institutions have started to get in on the idea. Educators from Stanford, CA to Portland, ME have successfully integrated real-world problems in ways that help students across the educational spectrum develop workplace competencies while positively impacting the world around them. An early case study of a California “Linked Learning” program for high schoolers even suggests that these programs could boost K-12 graduation rates while narrowing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.

But can real-world problem solving in education work at scale? Could it work for massive open online courses (MOOCs), which engage tens of thousands of students around the world? To answer this question, a colleague and I have partnered with “Foundations of Business Strategy,” a MOOC offered by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. For the final project, students will write a strategic analysis on an organization of their choosing. What’s more, the professor has invited small enterprises and nonprofits to join the course and solicit help from more than 90,000 students on addressing their business challenges.

Although the final projects won’t be due for another two weeks, we’ve observed encouraging levels of student engagement and interaction on course forums. One student told the riveting story of how he applied his learning to prepare a detailed strategic analysis as a part of a job interview… and was hired on the spot. Other students have already begun using the discussion forums to exchange insights with organizations, most of which have responded with genuine excitement and engagement.

This exploration is part of a broader initiative called Coursolve, which aims to connect courses with organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. We’ll be hard at work in the coming months helping students, educators and organizations implement problem solving. Be sure to check back in a few weeks for a review of our pilot or contact us now with your thoughts and feedback.

As educational institutions struggle to prepare students for the workforce, integrating real-world problems into course curricula could help close the skills gap while providing much-needed value to organizations. What’s there to lose?


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Readers Comments

Rob Young 2013/04/11 at 4:16 pm

I think projects such as Coursolve are a valuable resource for organizations, particularly those that are nonprofit, that may not have the means to employ business strategists but could nevertheless benefit from an injection of innovation into their operations. Coursolve has an important function of connecting organizations with eager, motivated students, who are getting the chance to learn by doing. I think it’s safe to say organizations that partner with Coursolve or individual students are doing their fair share of learning as well. A win-win situation.

Brian Bloom 2013/04/11 at 11:12 pm

It is a great idea to introduce real-world problem solving to courses so that students develop workplace competencies even before they graduate. However, in order for this component of a course to be successful, I would think there would have to be a high degree of faculty support and mentorship. It’s difficult for me to see how that would be possible in a course of the size Jain talks about. How will they ensure that all 90,000 students receive adequate feedback so they are not only having the opportunity to practice workplace skills but are improving them? It might make sense to involve some of the enterprises and nonprofit organizations that have solicited help in the assessment of these students — but how would one ensure quality and consistency across the board? There are a lot of questions to be answered before an idea like this could be pursued.

    Amit Jain 2013/04/15 at 9:21 pm

    Thanks for reading, Brian. I absolutely agree with what you’re saying. For course-organization partnerships to reach their full potential, there needs to be a structure in place that ensures that all parties have clear expectations and are held accountable to them. In our preliminary case studies of the course, many organizations (including some with very positive experiences) have raised this issue — both in terms of uneven expectations for organizational support and variable quality / reliability in student projects. Over the next few months, we’ll continue reviewing in order to improve our model in upcoming courses.

Yvonne Laperriere 2013/04/12 at 10:05 am

Logistically, it might be too difficult to make real-world problem solving a part of every course, but it should certainly be a part of the education of every student. MOOCs can be one delivery vehicle, but they are not the only type of course that could support a real-world problem solving component.

    Amit Jain 2013/04/15 at 9:24 pm

    Right on, Yvonne. We’re starting with MOOCs for now because the openness and huge numbers allow us to more easily try new ideas, but as we learn and improve, we intend to branch out into in-person courses. The college course I wrote about in the article is my favorite example of how powerful real-world problem solving can be, offline as well as online.

    Thanks for reading!

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