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.

Community-building

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.

Engagement

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.

Challenges

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."

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