Goldstein and Thorp Launch MOOC: "What's Your Big Idea?"

In the wake of the publication of their book, Engines of Innovation, University Entrepreneur in Residence Buck Goldstein and former UNC Chancellor and current Washington University in St. Louis Provost Holden Thorp are promoting entrepreneurship and innovation in a new type of classroom.

This month they launched “What’s Your Big Idea?,” a six-week Massive Open Online Course, MOOC, on Coursera, an online education platform. A MOOC consists of educational video content and interaction that is accessible to thousands of learners. Unlike some older online courses, “What’s Your Big Idea?” is free.

We sat down with Professor Goldstein to hear about the process of creating “What’s Your Big Idea?,” from conception to wrap.

Why did you choose to develop “What’s Your Big Idea?” as a MOOC?

Our publisher for Engines of Innovation asked us if we were going to write another book. The paperback edition had just come out, and we had written in the updated version about how online education was going to be really important. Rather than writing another book, we decided the best way to learn about online education was to jump in and get involved. We thought we could learn more about what we think is going to be an extraordinarily important innovation in higher education by doing a MOOC.

After taking this MOOC, what will students have learned?

Essentially they’ll have learned the skills required to take a big idea and get it to the point where they can determine whether it is viable or not. They can’t get all the way home, but they will have the skills to translate their idea into reality and then test the idea – alter it, pivot, change their mind, make a few mistakes, and decide at the end of the day if this is something they want to continue to work on.


Did you meet any resistance? Why do MOOCs and online education in general receive criticism?

We met very little resistance: both UNC and Washington University were very enthusiastic about it, as was Coursera. As for criticism, MOOCs challenge the current model for higher education. There are people who think that it will negatively impact their job status. There are people who are very committed to the status quo. There are people who see this as a way of inserting technology and inserting commercialization into academia. There are a whole series of concerns, many of them justified. Our view is that the best way to work those things through is to just do it. And learn from it, and participate rather than to put our hand in the sand and hope it goes away – because it won’t.


Tell us about filming. Was it difficult? Do students get a blooper reel?

Filming was difficult. We thought that we had the MOOC done because we filmed the class [Econ 125]. We began to collaborate with a colleague, Jeremy Petranka, who quickly told us that we needed to start from scratch. So it was redone, a script was written, and the actual filming of the content was using a teleprompter and a script, which was not what we expected at all. The blooper reel would be longer than the actual reel.

A few folks are interviewed for this MOOC. Who are they and why did you choose these specific folks?

Desh Despande is probably one of the most impactful social entrepreneurs in the world. A foundation of his in India feeds 1.2 million school children a day, and they want to scale up to ten times that size. Shazi Visram started a company called Happy Baby. Her company was just sold to Dannone. Jud Bowman is our youngest guest. He turned down a full ride at Stanford to start a company that ended up being valued in the billions, and then, he started another company. He is a pioneer in the area of smartphone apps. Shazi and Jud especially are close to the ages of most of our anticipated students. We picked people whom we think those who sign up for the MOOC can relate to.

What has been your favorite part of producing this MOOC?

I think my favorite part hasn’t happened yet. The thing that’s really got us jazzed is that one of the ways to get a certificate of accomplishment for the MOOC is to submit a three minute pitch. After we decided we were going to do that, it occurred to us that we’re going to get pitches from all over the world. I feel like we’re going to learn the most from the projects, how to encourage them, and whether or not there is something we can do with them after the MOOC.

How do MOOCs affect the future of education?

First, MOOCs make great intellectual content available to literally millions of people who would not have access anywhere else. I think that’s great for the world, and frankly I think it’s great for the United States because the world still aspires to come here to be educated. The idea of being able to reach out to the world with one of our very best products is very exciting.

Second, it’s going to make our classrooms better. Last year, Michael Porter, one of the world’s leading strategists, talked to the Econ 125 class. I was about to pick up the phone and ask him if he wanted to do it again this year, and I thought to myself, what am I thinking? It’s videoed, we don’t need him to give that same lecture again. We already have it. Then when asked what we wanted to do to make that lecture even better with an in-class experience that compliments that lecture. It’s going to make the in-class experience better because so much of what we do in class can be now done outside of class.

The same way that it brings great education to the world, it could bring an experience among the very best professors in the world to a large number of students who would never have access to it. For instance, a great lecturer on introductory Shakespeare could make their lecture widely available. Wonderful professors who are doing facsimiles of that lecture could use their classroom to show that lecture and do things that build on it. There will be seminal works of various kinds, whether it’s Shakespeare, introductory chemistry, or entrepreneurship, that are available to the world. MOOCs can potentially, if not abused, can make the entire higher education experience better.”

Check out this video for a preview of "What's Your Big Idea?" Registration is now open here!