In May, I posted about an opportunity for organizations to receive data support from students in the University of Washington’s massively open online course (MOOC), Introduction to Data Science. In the two months since, hundreds of students and organizations collaborated to exchange expertise and insights in real-world projects facilitated by Coursolve.
Since the course ended on July 1, we’ve been following up to learn how students, nonprofits, and other organizations benefited from the experience. After interviewing dozens of participants and surveying thousands more, we’ve gleaned some preliminary insights about ingredients for success when collaborating with MOOC students.
Early indications suggest that these collaborations were worthwhile, positive experiences for all parties. Students submitted a total of 109 analyses by the project due date, an impressive number for a wholly optional, ungraded project that had no impact whatsoever on course performance or certificate attainment and did not offer compensation. Many students continued to work with organizations after the project deadline, and others didn’t complete submissions but still delivered insights from early-stage analyses.
In post-course surveys, 63 percent of students indicated that it was important to them to have projects involving real-world problem solving in future courses. Over half of the organizations surveyed said they would want to work with students again in the future – and eight out of ten said they would recommend the course to other organizations with data needs.
Post-course interviews revealed similar insights. Although contacts at many organizations lacked prior experience in data science, those who engaged students and were willing to respond to questions were generally able to clarify ambiguities. Students picked projects based on a mix of professional development goals and personal interest. In particular, students interested in changing careers appeared more likely to opt to complete real-world projects as a means of honing their skills.
At Coursolve, we recruited students for a Twitter-based analytics project. We asked students to analyze Twitter keywords and hashtags to determine which topics relating to MOOCs and higher education generated the most engagement. Students were tasked with pulling data from the Twitter stream, cleaning and analyzing it, and presenting their results in a write-up or series of visualizations.
40 students expressed interest in our project posting, and approximately 10 collaborated with us over the course of the six-week project. Some worked with peers from around the world, while others chose to work independently. We held weekly Skype calls at 11 AM EST on Sundays – one of the only options that accommodated students spanning the globe from the Silicon Valley to India.
Because the course was open to the world, students brought a diverse range of outside experiences into the project. Some had lengthy careers as entrepreneurs or IT workers; others were recent graduates or traditional students in a variety of fields. Almost all decided to work past the course deadline for the project to improve their analyses. (In fact, two students are still working to provide additional insights.)
Ultimately, six students submitted completed analyses. To thank the students for their time, we offered feedback, recommendations, and reference listings to those who requested them. We also encouraged them to publicly showcase their work. On our end, the 2-3 hours per week that we invested in working with these students generated insights to inform our social media strategy going forward. In addition, all students who submitted projects expressed interest in working on future data projects with us.
Ultimately, we benefited from working with this worldwide pool of talent – and according to survey results, other organizations did as well. Aside from the tangible output we received, I appreciated the opportunity to connect with individuals who were passionate about our work. And our engagement with these students didn’t end with the course, as a number of students have expressed interest in working with us on additional projects.
At Coursolve, we believe students can use their learning to solve real-world problems for organizations, and we’re developing a platform to facilitate the matching of organizational needs and course projects. If this sounds like a resource that your organization could benefit from, be sure to visit the Coursolve website and sign up for updates on our beta launch this fall. Eager students could be waiting to address your organization’s needs, and you might even learn something from them along the way. What’s there to lose?
Amit Jain is the lead researcher at Coursolve, which connects academic courses to organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. He is also an associate teacher of middle school math and science at a charter school in Boston, MA.