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.

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