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.