Lessons from an online innovation course

By Sarah-Anne Arnold

Why would a man from Morocco who doesn’t have enough to eat buy a TV? How do we make schools work for poor citizens? Does foreign aid help or hinder? Without property rights, is life destined to be “nasty, brutish & short”?


These are the questions asked in the introduction to the edX online course, The Challenges of Global Poverty. They’re also questions that most citizens of the world and students of social innovation would like to answer, or at least explore. Including me. That’s how it all began.

My interest in social innovation started during my MBA and grew further through the Acumen Fund Leadership Essentials course and its very active online community.

Then, early in 2013, I read a review of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. The book had won the 2011 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award, and a new course by the two author economists was being piloted online at edX for the first time.

This was the course for me.

edX is a non-profit created by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to spread higher education to interested students around the world. You sign up if you want to, and complete the course if you care to. In some ways, that’s the best way to learn.

I was attracted to the 12-week edX Challenges of Global Poverty course because it offers an introduction to development economics, starting with the issues of global poverty and the economic models that try to explain them, and progressing all the way to the policy implications of these models.

It covers the same topics as the undergraduate MIT course by professors Duflo and Banerjee, except it takes place online in a global classroom with 40 000 students, many of whom live and work in the areas of the cases being studied.

I like that. I also like the methodology and randomised-control trial approach to poverty that the two economists have pioneered. I was interested in further understanding their in-depth research into health, education, entrepreneurship and evidence-based recommendations across the board. I signed up to do just that.

Click to start.

As with most Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), there are no prerequisites and sign-up is free. The only cost is your time – about six hours a week for watching video lectures (in eight- to 10-minute segments), doing readings and completing multiple-choice assignments.

It works well. A background in economics and statistics is recommended, but staff and peers are supportive in filling gaps as the course progresses. Material is uploaded weekly and assignments must be completed by a set deadline to be officially graded. Forum discussions between students, teacher assistants (TAs) and professors centre on the weekly topic.

The biggest challenge is staying committed to a programme that you haven’t paid for and aren’t actually required to complete. It’s easy to forget or neglect it. Hence the massive drop-out rate. But if you do complete it, you get knowledge for nothing. Some of the best knowledge in the world.

12 Lessons from my MOOC

edX 14.73x | The Challenges of Global Poverty

Ideology, inertia and ignorance. Three factors that frequently explain why policies fail and interventions don’t have the desired effect. #decisionmaking #wrongmodels

Week 2 : FOOD
Even among the very poor, improved economic wellbeing has a positive (but not huge) impact on calories consumed. #nutritioninvestment #returnslargerthancosts

Week 3 : HEALTH
Preventative care, such as bed nets and immunisation, lead to costs now, but benefits later. #lowhangingfruit #choicearchitecture #policy #trustiskey

Poor parents tend to believe that education is a lottery ticket and are sensitive to actual job opportunities. #elitebias #despondentstudents

Week 5 : FAMILY
The unitary versus individual model of the family impacts design of interventions like social grants or contraceptives. #bargainingpower #householdmodel

Online students take MIT’s spring break too. #catchupforumreading

Risk is a central part of life for the poor. But stress can actually exacerbate poverty. #cortisoldecisions #cortisolbabies

Week 8 : CREDIT
The peril and promise of microfinance – a basic model of the credit market tests the not-so-simple economics of lending to the poor. #institutionalform

Week 9 : SAVINGS
Hope has an impact on savings. The challenge is building houses, one brick at a time. #nothingtolose

Half of the urban poor run their own businesses. But the most common dream is that their children will work for government. #forcedentrepreneurship

Corruption and inefficiencies are more likely due to lack of understanding and attention to detail than conspiracy against the poor. #ideology #ignorance #inertia

Big open questions are hard to answer. Better to focus on smaller questions and analyse what works and how to make it work. #randomcontroltrials #evidencebased #progress

Inside | Sarah-Anne Arnold

Sarah-Anne Arnold

Sarah-Anne Arnold is the Manager of the Solution Space at University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business . In 2011, she completed an MBA at the UCT Graduate School of Business, with a thesis on Innovation Adoption in Higher Education. She’s also been a graphic designer, a lecturer and a volunteer on an expedition to live and work in the jungles of Borneo. In no particular order.



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