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When Altruism Meets Ingenuity:

A Drexel Co-op Success Story

Drexel University is different.  You have heard this before but what makes it different?  It is the students who are ready to jump right into a working environment while also obtaining their degree through Drexel Co-op.  It is the blending of academics and career aspirations by students completing 1-3 cooperative education experiences.  No one student exemplifies that Drexel difference than soon to be graduate of the Custom-Designed Major program within the Pennoni Honors College, Mansoor Siddiqui, who has been described as “very prepared, inquisitive” “innovative” and “wise beyond his years.” Mansoor used his three co-ops wisely, including his last one where he developed a learning software platform that will hopefully help students and faculty ease the learning process for students and also faculty with instructional delivery.

Drexel University doesn’t only want to help students find co-ops, they also want to help students create their own.  The Close School of Entrepreneurship helps support a number of students each co-op cycle to develop their own business in the form of the Entrepreneurship Co-op (http://drexel.edu/close/programs/co-op/).  If you are not familiar with Entrepreneurship Co-op, students from any undergraduate major can apply for support to develop/create a business that comes in the form of a stipend for the 6 month co-op period, with appointed mentors and a dedicated workspace at the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship.  Prospective entrepreneurs must develop a tested business model for a product/service including funding and/or a customer base as well as a statement of goals for the coop period.  The prospects are then invited into a panel interview with representatives from the Close School and the Steinbright Career Development Center.  The set-up is a bit like Shark Tank in that the students need to convince the panel that they represent the smartest investment.  Not every student can obtain funding for their prospective businesses. 

Mansoor impressed everyone on the panel.  “Mansoor demonstrated a passion for his idea, a well-conceived set of goals, and a solid work plan to help him make progress. The selection committee was very impressed with his presentation, his poise, and his potential,” Chuck  Sacco, Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives (Close School) and Director of the Baiada Institute for Entreprenueruship, stated.    Ian Sladen, Associate Dean (Close School) added, “He was humble enough to accept constructive criticism, embraced failure as a learning tool and understood conceptually how difficult the journey to launching the product would be.”  Given this foundation of passion, work-ethic and understanding, Mansoor was chosen to receive funding and support to develop his own business over six months.  Reflecting on the moment, Mansoor stated “I didn’t have a working prototype, but I convinced them that I was really committed to the idea and that I was passionate about my work.  It was a milestone moment when I was notified that I would receive the funding.”The entrepreursnhip experience began in April of 2016.

Monsoor will be graduating from the 5 year, 3 co-op program, in the Custom-Designed Major program within the Pennoni Honors College (http://drexel.edu/pennoni/interdisciplinary-inquiry/custom-design-major/).  This program provides students the opportunity to explore and form a major that fits into specific career aspirations.  This flexibility led Mansoor to focus mostly on physics and economics within his chosen concentration: Technological Innovation and Analytics.  The combination of his studies and his first 2 co-op experiences provided the foundation for his project.  “I guess that you could say that the idea started to form in the summer of 2015 during my second co-op.  I have always had entrepreneurship thoughts in the past.”  He was assigned two mentors which were dependent upon what the subject of his business.  Mansoor saw an opportunity to pilot his software in the Calculus 101 course.  His mentors were Chuck Sacco, who is the Director of the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, and Dimitrios Papadopoulos, who is a faculty member in the department of Mathematics at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.  Mansoor and other entrepreneurship students develop their business in an incubator setting in the Biaiada Center.  Even though, there are required meetings with mentors, the co-op students mostly work independently or as part of a team of students.  “It was the right proportion of guidance and accountability versus freedom.  I never had to ask for permission to do things.  I had the freedom to try things out and either fail or succeed,” Mansoor stated. Mentors work with students to set short and long term goals and discuss any resources that are needed.  When thinking about Mansoor during his co-op period, Sacco stated, “Mansoor was very prepared, inquisitive and collaborative. We require entrepreneurship co-ops to meet with mentors at least twice monthly as well as prepare a monthly status report. Mansoor leveraged those opportunities to get feedback on his progress and to help him develop his next set of goals. It was a pleasure working with him during the co-op and continues to be a pleasure as he maintains a residency status in the Baiada Institute incubator.”

The platform that Mansoor is developing could transform online education.  He believes that everyone should have equal access to quality education no matter who or where they are or what language they speak and this software aims to meet that goal. “In developing countries people are just getting access to the internet and are barely using it for education. There is an amazing opportunity here to access everything online.”  Siddiqui stated.  “The problem is that I don’t believe online education is where it needs to be right now as far as the experience for the student.  We are missing connection points with students and faculty.  You get feedback on answers sure, but it is full of multiple choice and static videos.”  What if a system could identify errors in the student’s learning reasoning process, and then help the student solve their own issues.  That is what ProjectOne is all about. “We're currently building an A.I. engine out of the data we collected to start making recommendations and attempting interventions to help students grow in their weak areas, as well as building out the analytics dashboard to help teachers and administrators measure student learning and course efficacy on a quarterly basis.”

During the co-op period, Mansoor and his team decided to take a research trip to Africa to take a close look at some of the developing countries markets.  “We went to Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique to visit schools, education startups, and telecom companies to understand the role of technology and e-learning in emerging markets. We wanted to make connections on the ground and soak in the culture to truly understand the problem we were trying to solve.”  The time in Africa was very successful in that it provided visual proof of some assumptions that ProjectOne was being built upon and also provided some new direction.  “The trip validated all of our key assumptions and gave us a solid idea of how to angle our solution,” Mansoor added.  

Currently, the system is in place for all students currently enrolled in Calculus 101 with the support of Dimitrios Papadopoulis.  “The platform currently works for the first sequence of Calculus by providing a step-by-step assessment interface, telling students exactly where they made their mistake, and allowing them to explore the most relevant rules, algebra, and concepts related to the problem to find and fill their underlying gaps.”  So what does that mean in layman’s terms?  Well, basically an instructor would upload their assignment into the system and then it would roll out to the students.  The students work through calculus step by step problems using an intuitive platform that leaves calculus as the only difficult thing to navigate.  If a student gets an answer wrong, then the system will indentify the step where the student went off course and highlight the issue.  It doesn’t stop there, though, as it provides recommendations on how to fix the issue including definitions and embedded videos.  The platform also provides an easy to follow map that connects more complex skills to their foundational building blocks.  This way the student can see all of the related skills that would contribute to solving the problem.    “Many times in more advanced math courses students don’t even know where to start when they get an answer wrong.  With this design, their issue is highlighted and resources are provided for a better understanding.  If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then the student can trace back to earlier skills to try to find where the gap in understanding really occurs,” Siddiqui describes. 

So is this an example of adaptive learning approach in which computers are used as interactive teaching devices, and to orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner?  Mansoor says not really.  ” Adaptive learning as a term is a bit overused and doesn't really cover the extent of what we're trying to achieve. Our focus is on dialogue we want there to be a "conversation" between the A.I. engine and the student.  It is a back and forth flow of data that allows the A.I. to improve and in turn help more students learn. We want to be able to show the transcript of that "conversation" to teachers for a deeper insight into where students are struggling.”  This could help faculty understand what skills students are struggling with in their courses.  The focus on the discovery process to a right answer can also shift the emphasis off of grades as a determinant for success.  Students will be able to see exactly where in their thinking they made a mistake while solving a problem. Then they will be able to explore and find out exactly the reason behind the mistake, and correct it.  “It's the opposite of arbitrary grades for just getting the correct answer from a memorized formula. It's a focus on learning the process and understanding everything as you think it through. Educators get to see both, in broad strokes and on a granular level, where students are having most difficulty as they come into a course, and where the most/least learning is taking place down to each individual concept.”

It is still very early to receive any significant returns from students or faculty members, but the early feedback is very positive.  Everyone that is introduced to the idea, from those involved with entrepreneurship co-op to the math department to the Office of the Provost are very impressed.  “He (Mansoor) is entering into the ed-tech space utilizing artificial intelligence and data analytics to support student learning which was is a big selling point,” Ian Sladen contributed. Even though Siddiqui thinks that there are some issues with the mainstream online offerings, he believes that that problem is fixable.  “MOOCs are a good business but no educational value in my opinion.  Other software platforms have educational value but do not present the business opportunity.  I want to find the nexus of these two things by providing a strong educational opportunity within a platform that will also have a strong business model,” Mansoor stated.   Sladen seems to think that this is a good fit for the market.  “The technology is certainly going to be the forefront of how the next generation of students learn and improve their skills. ProjectOne is a very valuable solution that will be helpful to many students particularly in parts of the world where traditional classroom access is difficult and teaching resources are sparse,”  Though the project has certainly developed, it still has a ways to go before it can be fully utilized according to Monsoor.  “The current impediment from a technical standpoint is achieving a system that works at scale (many subjects and content agnostic). The balance of being particular enough to be provide detailed help for each subject and being scalable enough to warrant investment is a difficult one to find. But it's not impossible.”  Mansoor is currently involved in a series of meetings with the Office of Research, the Office of Assessment, Accreditation & Effectiveness and other faculty around campus to see where his project fits and if he can find funding to achieve his goals. 

Mansoor Siddiqui is a complete success story and someone that Drexel will be very proud to call a graduate. “Mansoor exemplifies the best of Drexel students by demonstrating a strong balance between his academics and career aspirations, a respect for his peers and mentors, and a friendly and kind nature that will help him succeed in life,” Sacco stated.  His platform is also important for students and faculty alike in that it provides real time data for students to self-assess and also show patterns of difficulty for instructors.  This adaptive technology could change online delivery for the better.  Mansoor credits the Entrepreneurship co-op for this opportunity.  The co-op was the bridge from the starting point to starting his own my own business.  “This gave me the opportunity to develop my prototype, roll-it out and have a plan going forward.  I never would have been able to achieve all of that without the co-op,” Mansoor stated  “Our vision and the ultimate end goal is to create a better method of delivering content in addition to the assessment piece, and to have it be flexible to any language, culture, level of expertise, etc. Anyone in the world with any background or language who can learn effectively will be able to learn effectively online for free,” Mansoor concluded.  With an altruistic goal like this, it is no wonder why people are lining up to support this effort.