Sunday, 3 February 2013

Learning from the world, for the world

By Nabeel Gillani

I spent the last four years getting to know young students in Providence public schools.  During my third year at Brown, a few friends and I started visiting middle schools through an afterschool program we eventually dubbed “Learning Exchange.”  Our goal was to get kids excited about learning by showing them how cool it could be.  Our strategy?  Teaching computer programming and digital music mixing.  I remember one kid in particular – Freddy – who was so excited when he found out he would get to program his own video game.  I asked him what he wanted to create.  “Temple Run,” he said confidently, referencing a popular mobile app at the time.  I encouraged his enthusiasm but warned him that making the game would be challenging, requiring him to dig deep to find the insights and resilience to carry forward even in the toughest parts of the project.

Over the next 10 weeks, Freddy learned how to program and worked closely with my fellow teachers to make progress on his game.  For-loops here, conditionals there, even some math to position characters onscreen and facilitate user interaction.  In the final week, Freddy came with his peers up to Brown University to show off what he had created as a part of Learning Exchange’s end-of-session exhibition.  Perhaps for one of the first times in his life, he was given the chance to show off his work on a big stage.  And boy, did he succeed.  Strangers – Brown faculty and students and even middle schoolers from playgrounds far away from his own – played Freddy’s very own rendition of “Temple Run,” and they loved it.  Freddy had created something that would live beyond him, perhaps even outlive his interest in programming.  He put his talents to use to create an experience for others.

If there’s one thing I learned from teaching with Learning Exchange, it’s that irrespective of socioeconomic status, perceived talents, or behavioral issues, so many students are inherently curious and want to create things that enable other people to live a better, happier life.  Students can be excellent problem solvers – if they enjoy the process of problem solving and have a tangible product to look forward to.  Often times, unfortunately, the problems students are asked to solve are simply not interesting or are too isolated to view in a broader, what-does-this-mean-for-my-future-and-the-world context.

The creation of Coursolve, then, is a natural extension of my experiences with Learning Exchange.  Coursolve is a platform that matches organizations with courses to empower students to solve real-world problems.  I’ve seen first-hand how presenting a student with a problem that engages her creativity in an applied context can make her feel like she’s on top of the world.  But why bring organizations into the mix?  Through previous work on the administrative side of social sector initiatives such as Learning Exchange and the Capital Good Fund, I’ve also come to experience first-hand how a lack of resources, particularly relevant human capital, can keep an organization from pushing the boundaries of its own capacity.  What we have, then, are two sources of untapped potential – organizations and students – and a chance for both to positively impact each other.  It just makes sense to try and bring them together:  to help unlock the potential of students to, in turn, unlock the potential of real-world organizations.

Our pilot in collaboration with Professor Michael Lenox’s MOOC (massively open online course), Foundations of Business Strategy, will provide insights into how online learning communities can successfully engage in real-world problem solving for small enterprises and nonprofit organizations.  These organizations are invited to sign up for the course and interact with thousands of students from around the world who will decide to focus their final assignments – a strategic analysis of an existing company – on the organizations that participate and the needs they voice.  MOOCs are an especially interesting area of investigation for Coursolve because they bring together a diverse set of students around a particular topic. 
Our focus will start out on the higher education space but we hope, in due course, to explore partnerships between real-world organizations and courses at all levels of education.  Over the next few months, we will rigorously analyze the results of the pilot and connect with a wide variety of organizations and courses to learn:

  1. How to promote engaged scholarship and skill-building – Real-world problem solving not only provides the opportunity to engage students in meaningful learning experiences; it also helps students develop key skills that make them more workforce-ready. 
  2. What it means to create value for organizations that are resource-strapped – Organizations span many different sectors and have a spectrum of needs with varying degrees of nuance.  One challenge that we are excited to investigate is how academic settings full of students can yield productive, valuable solutions to organizational challenges. 
  3. How to make a good match – Are there certain types of learning settings and certain types of organizations or needs that are better matches than others? 

If you’re an organization that could use some extra help in addressing your challenges, a course instructor with a desire to include real-world problem solving as a part of your course(s), a student with ideas for different needs you think some of your classes could help address, or anyone who wants to learn more about Coursolve, please visit  As we continue to learn and grow over the next few months, we’ll work to build a robust platform that makes it easy for organizations and courses to connect with and support one another. 

Let’s join in promoting learning from the world, for the world.

Nabeel Gillani is currently pursuing an MSc in Education (Learning and Technology) at the University of Oxford.  He graduated from Brown University in May 2012 with a degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science.  The names used in this article are aliases to preserve confidentiality.

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