Thursday, 12 September 2013

Coursolving my summer: living the product that I helped to create

By Naveed Jooma

My relationship with Coursolve is grounded in great trust. I was brought on board as a UX Engineer to help shape user experience through thoughtful design. I ended up doing much more than what was originally planned, but that’s the nature of creating a new platform; our diverse needs as an early stage venture required me to do much more than design. However, my experience with web design, front-end frameworks, databases, APIs, and the rest of the requirements of web-apps was extremely limited.

While the other members of the development team have formal training in computer science, I recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in neuroscience. The entirety of my design and software development experience comes from the handful of computer science courses I took during my undergraduate studies. Yet I, a relative novice in the space of web-app development, became part of the team that helped create the wonderful product that is Coursolve.

It’s because Coursolve’s central tenet is that students can solve real world problems that I was fortunate enough to be part of the team; because we deeply believe in the power of students, of non-experts, of students who have taken a few courses, like me. We believe that students can extrapolate the skills they’ve learned and apply them to create something meaningful. 

And there I was, a “knowledge outsider,” bright-eyed and willing to put in the time and effort necessary to complement my learning with experience. And the team trusted me enough, believed in me enough to let me help.

That’s what Coursolve is. It’s where students can apply their knowledge in real world settings to help organizations, and it’s where organizations place their trust in students in hopes of augmenting the students’ learning and receiving help along the way.

My experience with Coursolve was a micro-Coursolve, essentially a beta-test of the product in front of you today. I became part of a spectacular team that helped me learn and grow. We discussed and collaborated and bounced ideas off one another and helped address a need we believed in. And now we offer that same opportunity to the rest of the world.

Naveed is currently a UX Engineer with Coursolve.  You can read more about him here:

Friday, 5 July 2013

Coursolve in Harvard Business Review

Hey folks,

Yesterday, our co-founders Nabeel Gillani and Zafrin Nurmohamed, as well as Foundations of Business Strategy professor MIchael Lenox, wrote a follow-up piece that was published in the Harvard Business Review blog!

Give it read and let us know what you think -- we've already gotten some thoughtful responses. We'll add our own thoughts back into the conversation in a few days.

Coursolve Team

Thursday, 30 May 2013

A taste of our own medicine

This Sunday morning, something magical happened. At 8:30am EST, I sleepily logged on to Skype for a conference call with students in Introduction to Data Science, a new MOOC offered through the University of Washington. These students, who hailed from around the world, came with a desire to apply the knowledge and skills they were obtaining through the course to help address real-world data challenges. 

At Coursolve, we’ve been inspired by how our partnership with the course, taught by Professor Bill Howe, has taken shape. Since the start of the course, hundreds of students have expressed interest in working on real-world data science challenges posted by organizations. Nonprofit environmental advocacy groups, university research labs, and more have connected with students to meet real needs and engage in rich, thought-provoking discussion. With a month left in the course, some have already begun to produce results.

We knew that if we really believed in what students could create, we had to take advantage of the chance to work with them ourselves. Accordingly, I decided to post a project of our own on the course forums. The course's first assignment, a Twitter sentiment analysis, tipped me off: what could students tell us about our social media strategy? What topics in higher education were most interesting to our audience, and what characterized the most popular Tweets and Facebook posts about them?

I logged onto the forums and posted a project. Just one week later, my inbox was humming:  10 students reached out to work with us. I planned a conference call to frame the project and helped identify work items; unfortunately, because of time zone differences, we had to hold the call early in the morning. And so, still sans-coffee, Nabeel and I groggily jumped on Skype and began learning from the students that were supposed to be learning from us.

Over the course of the conversation, we were inspired to learn about students' diverse backgrounds: some were recent college grads, while others had decades of work experience. One had a Ph.D. in Physics and another, young and idealistic, simply wanted to give back to the higher education space in “whatever small way [he] could.” We also realized that over half of the students we were speaking with were in the same time zone as us. In other words, these individuals joined us for an early-morning Sunday call on a long weekend – just because they cared about what they were learning and wanted to use it to make a difference. 

After a group discussion, we landed on a project specification that met students' interests and fell in line with our objectives. We ended the call, but not the conversation: over the past week, students have been eagerly sharing resources using our new Google Group. What's more, over the course of one particularly exciting 12-hour period, I heard from twelve additional students hoping to join the team.

Given the promising results from our last course partnership, I can't wait to see the insights that these passionate learners produce. As someone new to data science, I’m relying on these students to help us make progress in how we understand the higher education space.  And if our initial interactions are any indication, I have many reasons to be hopeful.

If you're interested in taking advantage of this opportunity for your own organization, now is the time! There's only one week left to post projects on the forums. Check out our post on the GuideStar blog for ideas -- or browse some of the projects already posted on the course forums.

For someone who believes so strongly in the capabilities of students, there's nothing like seeing them step up to use their knowledge for the betterment of others. We hope you’ll join the fun yourself.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Early takeaways from "Foundations of Business Strategy"

Rebecca Kagan wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed up for Foundations of Business Strategy. As co-founder of the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a student-run nonprofit that donates surplus food from college dining halls to local shelters, Kagan had spent the previous year helping to establish chapters at 20 different colleges and garnering encouraging attention from major media outlets. Still, for all of FRN’s early successes, Kagan was concerned that it lacked a formal business model and accounting system.

In hopes of fixing this, Kagan posted a blurb on the course’s final project forums seeking analyses. Within a few days, a range of students had contacted her; some had real-world experience, while others brought nothing more than a desire to help. “Somebody coming in from the outside and asking first-level questions is really valuable,” Kagan noted. “Just by having students try to understand us, it’s been interesting to hear what they have asked for.”

FRN had never been evaluated in a formal capacity before, and Kagan was surprised to see students trying to measure the organization’s accountability and transparency. Ultimately, she discovered the most value not in the final analyses submitted by students, but in what she learned by interacting with a group of interested, fresh, and clear-eyed individuals.

Of course, FRN was just one of many organizations that sought help from students in the business strategy MOOC, which wrapped up last week. Now that the course is over, the team here at Coursolve is asking organizations – how’d it go? We’ve spoken with six out of the approximately 50 organizations that used the forums to solicit help. Here’s some of what they had to say.


Everyone we spoke to believed, to varying extents, that students could provide valuable insights to their businesses. Although one organization contact doubted that students would ever surpass his own level of analysis due to his experience in the field, he nevertheless found it worth bringing in “young minds with great vision.”

Contacts also felt that committed students could contribute to their work regardless of prior expertise. However, students with different backgrounds and technical understanding were able to provide different types of support. In line with Kagan’s experience, one entrepreneur noted that although students with business experience put forward the most efficient analyses, novices asked worthwhile questions that forced him to challenge his long-standing assumptions.

Lastly, most organizations entered with few expectations and left pleasantly surprised at what students had been able to contribute. In the loosely structured pilot, most contacts invested only 2 hours a week or less corresponding with the students analyzing their businesses, meaning that the insights they received came at very little cost. For one entrepreneur, those 2 hours a week led to a new business model and a successful meeting with investors; for another, it led to a robust internal strategic analysis after three years of operation; and for Kagan, it led to a refocusing on organization and accountability. As one contact asked, “What do I have to lose here?”


Organization contacts also identified several areas for improvement. One roadblock to collaboration was student reliability: over the duration of the course, more than half of the students who initially contacted each organization dropped off. While this may be a consequence of the massively open online setting, some contacts suggested that a clearer framing of expectations could lead to more productive partnerships.

The relative anonymity of course participants also posed an issue. Multiple organization contacts expressed some discomfort in trusting students they had never met and, as a result, some chose not to disclose sensitive information that could compromise their market advantage.  On the other side, at least one student refused to talk on the phone with a contact due to privacy concerns.

Next steps

As we dig deeper into survey data and hold additional follow-up interviews, we’ll be sharing what we learn and applying it in future real-world problem solving settings. In the meantime, when we asked organizations about what other needs they wanted help with, data analysis was one of the most commonly mentioned challenges. Luckily, the perfect opportunity is on its way.

Starting on May 1, students in University of Washington Professor Bill Howe’s MOOC, Introduction to Data Science, will have the opportunity to complete an optional data analysis project using real-world data from an organization. Potential projects could range from trend identification to data visualization to general analysis.

If you or an organization you work with are interested, be sure to read more and sign up for free at: And remember to check back here soon for more takeaways from Foundations of Business Strategy.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Foundations of Business Strategy, Week 3: Developing an online community

By Amit Jain

We’ve hit the halfway point of Foundations of Business Strategy, and the milestone brings good tidings. As students continue to interact on the course message boards, we’ve seen a growing sense of community, with students eager to apply their new business strategy skills despite logistical roadblocks.


Forum posts provided heartening evidence that MOOCs can produce cohesive, energetic learning communities. Students continued to discuss course content on and off the forums, as with one student who started a thread about the missing “strategic link” between disjoint lectures. Subforums for content from weeks 1-3 have also remained surprisingly active, with regular posts from learners eager to continue the discussion.

Students are also adopting an encouraging tone with their classmates. One particularly engaged poster earned accolades from her peers over her numerous analyses, while other students augmented her work. Another student expressed genuine appreciation for the quality work of another:

"Excellent work – you’re setting the bar higher which should make us all work a little bit harder. Thanks!"

Remarkably, students maintained this atmosphere of positive intellectual engagement even when they disagreed. Debates that could easily have grown contentious stayed civil and productive. One student even apologized to his peers after posting with a harsher tone than he had intended.


Online courses are notorious for their challenges with student engagement, but the forums suggested that real-world learning applications might be able to cultivate stronger motivation in some students. One of the week’s most popular posts was by a student who successfully used course content in a job interview:

"I've been hunting for a position for a few months now due to changes within my industry… I was called in for a second interview on Thursday, so I thought what a great opportunity to use what I have learned in this strategy class… It turned into a 3-page analysis and walking into a second interview with this information in hand set the bar so high they hired me on the spot. THANK YOU!!"

Many other students found themselves devoting more time than they had anticipated, acknowledging that the more they put in to the course, the more they would get out of it. Still, one poster noted that although he was putting in more than 6 hours a week, he was struggling with putting forth “a serious effort” without the prospect of a grade or certification.

Project progress

Over the past week, discussions between organizations and students took on a life of their own. From initial observations, organizations that posted more regularly seemed to receive both a greater quantity of project-seekers and a higher quality of analyses. One particularly engaged participant found a number of students interested in analyzing his biotech startup. A mere eleven days into the course, he expressed his gratitude to one student:

"I couldn't help but notice that you spent almost two hours [on your analysis]. Much appreciated. I have read all your comments carefully and will respond to them after I have spent some time thinking. They will definitely inform my strategic analysis going forward."

Other organizations also saw promising results, including a small restaurant, a language-based nonprofit, and a virtual art marketplace; interestingly, student respondents often mentioned prior experience in a relevant field. However, organizations that were less active on the forums saw a corresponding drop in student interest. It may be that in order for real-world problem solving to be effective, both organizations and students must be invested as collaborators with a common objective.


Logistical issues continue to pose a challenge to students. Multiple posters expressed frustration over keeping track of lengthy and linear forum threads, and many chose to take their discussions offsite via Facebook groups, Google Docs, or old-fashioned email. Other students voiced their challenges in finding final project materials, including sample analyses and submission information.

A second, broader challenge was presented by less engaged organizational contacts. Some students lost interest in organizations that failed to answer questions and instead searched for new partners; meanwhile, the most active organizations were inundated with students willing to help. The overarching question remains: how can online learning environments better encourage students and organizations to engage in sustained, meaningful collaboration?

Looking forward

All in all, student discussions over the past week offered plenty of reasons for positivity. Three weeks away from the final project due date, we’re already seeing students and organizations beginning to realize the potential of real-world problem solving.

In our next pilot update, we’ll provide more in-depth updates on final project progress; in the meantime, if you’re not signed up for the course yet, it’s not too late! Join thousands of other students in using your learning to impact real organizations. As one student and adjunct professor noted:

"I am thankful you have offered this class. It truly is making a difference in my life view."

Thursday, 14 March 2013

A Strong Foundation for Foundations of Business Strategy

By Nabeel Gillani

We’re 2 weeks into Foundations of Business Strategy and there’s already much to discuss.  The forums are buzzing with students exchanging insights on the current week’s lectures and business case questions.  Organizations – a biotechnology company, a nonprofit education agency, and a small restaurant, to name a few – have already begun posting background information on their initiatives to solicit student analyses, even though the final project isn’t due until the middle of April!  Move over, procrastinators – these MOOCers are on the rise.   

Below, we take a closer look at some key characteristics of the course’s participants and overall progression.  If you haven’t already registered, sign up and browse the forums to experience the rich dialogue, tough questions, and passion for learning that these students bring to the table. 

What are the participants like?

We were able to garner some insights from responses to pre-course surveys administered to both students and organizations. 40% of respondents in both categories were between the ages of 25 and 34, and nearly 80% had at least a Bachelor’s degree.  When we asked why they signed up for the course, the most popular response among organizations and students alike was “professional development,” suggesting that most course participants are young, well-educated professionals looking to take away tangible skills to apply in their own work contexts.

We also learned about the general dispositions of organizations and students in the course.  Over 80% of organizations agreed that they “could use some help in making strategic decisions,” and over 86% agreed that people outside of their organization could “provide valuable advice” on business challenges.  Meanwhile, 55% of students agreed that they were “confident in [their] ability to strategically analyze businesses,” while 95% agreed that they were “motivated to continue to try and solve a problem, even when it is difficult.”  In this case, although students don’t feel extremely confident in their ability to offer useful business advice just yet, they appear to be willing to work hard to become proficient.  It’s only a matter of time before students help organizations build more robust initiatives.


The primary challenge we’ve faced thus far relates to clarity of communication.  Even with email announcements and instructions on the course subpages, many students remain uncertain on how to submit assignments or seek information for the final project.  Early on in the course, organizations were confused about how to upload information about their companies, which Professor Lenox quickly rectified by creating a sub-forum for organizations seeking analysis. Students have also started stepping in and responding to questions on forum threads if they know the answer.

Students also seem to be thirsting for rich, interactive discussion and collaboration environments beyond what Coursera currently offers.  Many threads eventually conclude with a suggestion to continue conversations in a Facebook group, Google Hangout, StudyRoom, or some other platform.  It’s not clear what impact this fragmentation of students’ learning experiences will have on the overall value they derive from the course.

Signs of promise

Any course faces challenges, especially one with over 80,000 people registered.  But there are also early signs that point to the promise of what business value these students can create.  An affiliate of an organization responded to questions from potential student consultants with the following comment:

“…all good questions. Very thoughtful. This is the kind of discussion I hoped for when I offered my organization for strategic analysis. It is making me think very hard. Thanks.”

Meanwhile, other students are finding less formal ways to innovate. We accidentally used a text field for students’ responses to the survey question asking them to state their age – but that opened the door for some tongue-in-cheek contemplation:

“…but to extend the answer, I'm living in a complex age, dominated by the so called worse european economic crisis after ww2 and some of those needs our parents felt basic and automatic are coming back to the main attention: job, safety, food, home. This is our age: big mutations, huge complexity, great potential. Lot of hopes.

Lot of hopes, indeed.

Monday, 4 March 2013

For the Good of the Patient

This week's post is from guest blogger Anita Mathews, who writes about the value of real-world problem solving in medical education.

The rumors passed down through the ranks of pre-medical students from year to year are terribly daunting, and thankfully, many of them are untrue. There is, for instance, the notion that the courses one takes prior to entering medical school are tedious and far-removed from the type of material one will study in preparation for actually becoming a doctor. During the spring of my senior year, I found my own happy exception in the form of a class called Emergency Medical Systems, taught by two physicians who worked at local hospitals.

In addition to attending lectures and completing reading assignments, students were required to shadow doctors in local emergency departments as a core component of understanding the role of health care providers and the needs of patients. Our final project challenged us to draw from what we had witnessed in the hospital and create tools for patients to ensure that they cared for their injuries properly upon being discharged from the ED. Our instructors emphasized that, in devising these products, we should be cognizant of the low level of literacy among emergency room patients and come up with something simple and interactive.

I relished the opportunity the instructors for this course afforded us; rather than sit behind a desk and take a final exam, we were asked to exercise our capacity for creativity and use our personal observations to find feasible solutions for real people’s problems. Useful and usable hospital discharge instructions for patients could reduce hospital readmittance rates, improve outcomes, and prevent unnecessary expenses. It was a privilege and a valuable learning experience to pitch ideas with that kind of potential.

The course’s culminating symposium showcased a range of innovative ideas, including comic strips, instructional videos, board games, and stuffed toys. The projects were evaluated for cost effectiveness and execution in the hopes that the best ideas and demos could become real items used in the EDs where our course instructors worked as physicians. It was evident that many of the students chose to create care instructions based on the experiences they had had while shadowing at Rhode Island Hospital or Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Those that had seen Spanish-speaking patients created items that featured bilingual instructions, while others that had seen very young patients designed kid-friendly products that would put children at ease in frightening or painful situations.

Essentially, the students addressed the challenges that were unique to providing medical care within the state of Rhode Island -- more specifically, in the area around our university. Had we been asked to create hospital discharge instructions for medical centers elsewhere, the possibilities for identifying a problem and designing its solution would have been endless. Effective care guidelines following a visit to the ED could vary greatly in medium, depending on location of the hospital and its resources, as well as the range in socioeconomic status of patients served. The most common types of injuries (which might differ between a conflict zone and a rural setting, for example) would also have to be taken into account. I imagine that remotely creating a product for a hospital no students in our class had ever visited would have required more extensive research and perhaps the chance to learn more about the delivery of emergency care in various contexts.      

This final assignment reflects a growing trend in medical education toward placing team-based problem solving at the heart of the curriculum. At many medical schools across the country, students in their pre-clinical years are working together to determine the diagnosis and appropriate treatment of a practice patient’s case. Rather than relying solely on lectures, medical educators are incorporating team-based learning (TBL) to encourage students to learn through application and simulation of the types of challenges they will see later on. Schools are finding that by pairing traditional course formats with TBL, they are able to cater to a wide variety of learning styles and engage students more thoroughly. Then, once it is time to go from the classroom to the clinical setting, students who have dealt with real cases will be able to make the transition with a bit more confidence.

For young people who hope to one day shape the health care system, these opportunities to take a practical approach to acquiring scientific knowledge are invaluable. In a field that requires both mastering an ever-growing knowledge base and maintaining a finely-tuned sense of empathy, there’s no such thing as too much practice. And of course, what’s good for the doctor-in-training is bound to be good for the patient.

Anita Mathews will be a first-year medical student in August 2013. Since graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s of neuroscience last year, she has worked as a Health Policy Fellow at a think tank in Washington, D.C., contributing to public health op-eds for the Huffington Post.