Innovating Higher-Education

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are a very hot topic in higher education and corporate training.  Nabeel Gillani started to connect organizations using MOOCs with students around the world to solve real world problems.  UVa’s Darden School of Business and University of Washington are finding unexpected value and learning by using Coursolve.  We are in a new age of education, and just leave it to our students to make sure they are front and center! Nabeel is pursuing a Master’s in Learning and Technology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and is also co-founder of  He finished his undergraduate education in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at Brown University in 2012.  You can read more of his thoughts on MOOCs in Stanford Social Innovation Review as well.

Every Friday, I try to remember how to multiply and divide 2-digit numbers as 9-to-11 year olds at St. Nicholas Primary School show off their math prowess.  Technically, I’m there to tutor them, but often they’re the ones teaching me.  Last Friday was no different:  with 15 minutes left, I walked over to David, a 10-year old math whiz.  Sensing his boredom, I asked him a classic question:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  He responded with “A scientist – probably an astronomer.”  And then, he took me to school.

“You know, outer space is like a big spikey ball that keeps on getting bigger,” he said.  I was stunned by his image of an expanding universe.  David proceeded to talk about the origin of black holes and the relationship between time and space.  He then discussed the big bang, conceptualized the possibility of multiple universes, and described “infinity.”  Up until that point, I knew David as the kid who kept talking as we took attendance at the start of each session, but in 15 minutes, he had dropped enough knowledge on me to make a first-year Physics undergrad take notes.

I am constantly reminded that students – many of them less than half my age – are capable of so much.  I spent the past four years at Brown University learning how to play basketball from an elementary schooler and watching 12 year-olds in Providence channel their creativity into building computer games.  Years later and halfway around the world, David gave me one of the most engaging Physics lessons of my life.  By enrolling as a student in formal institutions, what I’ve really done is become the student of other students.  I’ve been lucky to learn from people with unique interests and insights, backgrounds and experiences ready to apply their knowledge to shaping the world.

It is this observation – that students can use their talents to break down barriers and change the world – that has driven the development of Coursolve.  Coursolve is a platform that connects organizations with courses to empower students to solve real-world problems.  Over the past few months, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of my closest friends to explore how a wide range of students, learning both online and offline, can meaningfully contribute to solving hard problems. 

A key partner in this exploration has been Professor Michael Lenox of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  As a part of his recent massively open online course (MOOC) on business strategy, Professor Lenox invited small enterprises, nonprofits and other organizations to join the course and solicit students to provide strategic analysis and insights as a part of their final projects.

We’ve been inspired by the results so far.  For entrepreneurs like Rajan, who solicited the help of students to significantly alter the course of his biotech startup’s business development, accessing insights from a diverse body of learners was game-changing.  But Rajan wasn’t alone.  Rebecca, co-founder of the Food Recovery Network, discussed the value students added by asking fundamental questions that challenged her existing business assumptions.  Ashutosh, the founder of a not-for-profit online language learning organization, mentioned how guidance he received from one student could help his initiative become financially sustainable. 

Over 100 organizations received, on average, about 4 final strategic analyses each.  Out of over 1,000 survey respondents that identified as part of an “organization”, 60% said they would want to work with students to address their challenges in the future. 87% felt that what they received from the course was worth their time and effort (most organizations – 55% – spent only 2-5 hours per week).  Moreover, over 80% of the respondents felt that people outside of their organizations could provide valuable advice on business challenges.  As for students, over 85% of the survey respondents left feeling confident in their abilities to help businesses address their strategic challenges, and 88% said that having real-world problem solving in future courses was important to them.

These results have given us immense hope for what the future holds.  Our latest partnership is with Professor Bill Howe’s Introduction to Data Science MOOC, where students will have an opportunity to help a wide range of organizations answer important questions by analyzing internal or public datasets.  The 8-week long course started on May 1st, and already, we’ve seen research firms, environmental advocacy groups, and small community organizations post projects.  Since we are especially excited about what students in these settings have to offer, Coursolve is also working directly with course participants to gain insights into how we can improve our social media strategy. 

As Coursolve develops over the next few months with new partnerships and a more robust platform, it will continue to help enable students with different cultural backgrounds, academic interests, and life experiences learn by directly engaging with some of the toughest problems of our time.  If we help open doors to smart people around the world, there’s no telling who will step through —and what they will accomplish.  Who knows, some of them might even teach us a thing or two about the universe.