Pages Navigation Menu

Problem-based Learning In MOOCs: Collaborating Online To Develop Real-world Skills

Guest post by Amit Jain

online collaboration in MOOCs

JD Hancock via Flickr

The old law school joke about how one in three new students won’t be here next year could be updated for MOOCs. Now we might say, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. For good measure, look directly behind you, and in front of you, too. All five of you will probably drop this course.”

That’s an exaggeration, but it’s clear that not everyone who signs up for a MOOC is getting everything out of the experience that they could. In May, Katy Jordan, a Ph.D. student in technology-enhanced learning, reviewed data from 29 MOOCs and found the average completion rate across them to be only 7.7 percent. Students drop for many reasons – some of us lose interest and others decide that course content is over our heads, but most of us end up deciding that we just don’t have time.

MOOC supporters, and some researchers, argue that completion rates are an improper metric for open learning experiences catering to busy adults – and while that may be true, certification systems have yet to catch on. On current MOOC platforms, the 12 out of 13 students who don’t “complete” a course walk away with little or no output to signal their skills acquisition to employers.

Some MOOC providers, such as U.K.-based FutureLearn, plan to address this concern with badging systems that offer credit for partial completion. But until such badges become commonplace, one way to make the most of your MOOC experience is to use problem-based learning online to develop skills that have a real-world impact. By working to solve problems faced by organizations that partner with a MOOC class, you can put your learning into practice in a way that builds relationships and develops real-world skills.

This spring, two Coursera offerings – Prof. Michael Lenox’s Foundations of Business Strategy from the UVa Darden School of Business and Prof. Bill Howe’s Introduction to Data Science from the University of Washington – provided students the opportunity to do just that. Coursolve, an initiative that I work with, partnered with these courses to allow students to connect with businesses and complete experiential learning projects. I got to view these collaborations up close – and I gathered some tips from students I observed:


1)     Apply your skills to a cause that you’re passionate about

Most students in these MOOCs were interested in the subject matter of the course. But problem-based learning assignments tied to real-world problems allowed them to apply their new skills within a variety of other fields that also piqued their interest.

For example, an IT professional in India who took Foundations of Business Strategy decided to analyze an offshore analytics company because of his desire to eventually work in the field. His genuine passion propelled his learning, strengthened his analysis of the company and enabled him to develop an ongoing relationship with his contacts there that lasted beyond the course. Other students, driven by a dual interest in business and medicine, helped re-envision the business model of a biotech startup.

Similarly, when Coursolve posted our own data analytics project for Introduction to Data Science, we found that students who learned the most and stuck through to the end were those who were truly passionate about our work in higher education.

Meanwhile, when other students in the course weren’t excited about any of the organizations that posted projects, they posted their own problems to tackle instead – like a group of amateur radio operators who worked through a massive dataset to identify holes in signal coverage. Though this last cohort didn’t meet the expressed needs of an organization, they did get a chance to explore issues that they cared about, learning a lot and laying the groundwork for future initiatives along the way.


2)     Build relationships with your peers and other people you work with

MOOCs don’t just offer big-name credentials or high-quality lectures – there’s remarkable potential in the “massive,” global learning communities they bring together. Students who take advantage of this resource may gain as much out of interactions from their peers as they do from professors.

As an observer, I was impressed and excited to see business strategy students working together closely on real-world problems. In the data science project I managed, I saw firsthand that students working in groups had additional people who could provide them with feedback, answer questions and take on chunks of the project; as a result, they were able to work more efficiently and tackle problems of a larger scope.

Of course, real-world problems don’t just involve collaboration among students – by their nature, they often include communication between students and professionals. Just as many organizations stayed in touch with the students they worked with in Foundations of Business Strategy, I’ve kept in touch with some of the Introduction to Data Science students who worked with me. Because of the quality of their output, I’ve offered to write them personal recommendations and pass along additional project opportunities that they might be interested in. In many ways, I learned as much from them as they did from me.


3)     Take pride in your work

We’ve found that students can accomplish amazing things in projects they’re excited about. The most successful students we worked with in Introduction to Data Science submitted beautiful data visualizations and well-written reports that will serve as tangible demonstrations of their new skillsets. One student notified us that he would be posting his final MOOC project on his LinkedIn profile, which we strongly encouraged.

By devoting their energies to a real-world application of the concepts they learned in class, these students were able to strengthen their understanding of new ideas and content. They surmounted obstacles – like learning new programming techniques in order to collect and clean massive datasets – that they might not have otherwise encountered in a hands-off classroom setting. And they came out of it with a final product they were proud to showcase, along with lasting relationships with peers and professionals.


In March, I saw students offer strategic analyses to biotech startups, financial feedback to student-run nonprofits and business insights to firms around the world. Last month, students used their newly-acquired skills to analyze health care data from international hospitals, consumer data for music and marketing companies and social media data for medical and education-related causes.

So next time you’re in a MOOC, try using your learning addressing a real-world problem. If there isn’t one on the syllabus, make one up – find something you care about, connect with other interested students and apply your knowledge towards it. You might be surprised at what you gain from the experience.


Amit Jain is a researcher and product manager at Coursolve. Coursolve connects courses with organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. Follow Coursolve on Twitter @coursolve.


Guest Blogger (8 Posts)

This post was written by a guest blogger. If you're interested in writing a review or other essay, check out our contributor guidelines.