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Pioneering course’s final exam: charitable giving

The final exam for Northeastern’s massive open online course on effective charitable giving was not a traditional essay or a multiple-choice test. Instead, students made a social impact by selecting nonprofits to receive grant funding to help support their missions.

Grants totaling $150,000 will be awarded to 30 nonprofit organizations from across the country.

The MOOC, titled “Giving With Purpose,” is the first-ever massive open online course focusing on philanthropy and informed civic engagement, and it was offered for the second time ever this spring. It is the signature program of Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab. The lab, which launched in January, is a hub of innovative experiential curricula, programming, and events designed to empower social change and civic engagement across disciplines and around the world.

Students in the course gained valuable insight and learned important lessons about philanthropy and informed civic engagement from nominating and selecting the eventual grant recipients, according to Rebecca Riccio, the Social Impact Lab’s director and course instructor.

“The money will make a difference for the nonprofit organizations,” said Riccio, who is also the founding program director of Northeastern Students4Giving, which is supported by the Social Impact Lab and part of Northeastern’s Human Services program. “But we are also trying to cultivate informed civic engagement and teach students how civil society works.”

Rebecca Riccio, director of Northeastern's Social Impact Lab, records an online course lesson in Northeastern's Digital Media Commons for "Giving with Purpose," a massive online open course on charitable giving. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Rebecca Riccio, director of Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab, records an online course lesson in the Digital Media Commons at Snell Library for “Giving with Purpose,” a massive online open course on charitable giving. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

About 7,500 people worldwide registered for the course.

At the beginning of the course, students nominated organizations they believed worthy of grant funding. Over the six classes, students assessed each other’s nominations using effective giving tools, strategies, and principles presented by Riccio. The final exam was a comprehensive review of the nominations that made it to the final round.

“When the final came around, students were very familiar with the criteria and had a vested interest in applying them well,” Riccio explained. “They knew their input mattered.”

Students awarded a total of $100,000 to 20 organizations—including St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, the New York Public Library, and Reading Partners—with funding from Northeastern, the Learning by Giving Foundation, and NYSE Euronext CEO Duncan Niederaurer.

Another 10 organizations received a total of $50,000, thanks to team sponsorships from Positive Tracks, the American Public Health Association, and the Red Sox Foundation.

The MOOC was created in partnership with the Learning by Giving Foundation, which was founded by Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett. The foundation promotes philanthropy at the undergraduate level with the hope of inspiring students to become leaders in their communities.

The MOOC was first offered in Spring 2013 to educate the public about effective charitable giving and it was relaunched this spring as part of the Social Impact Lab, which is housed within the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

“This was the first time Northeastern University was a full partner in creating and sponsoring the MOOC,” Riccio said. “It is a really exciting place for Northeastern to showcase its leadership in experiential education.”

The impact of Giving With Purpose extends beyond the money invested in communities across the U.S., according to Riccio. “By giving students a meaningful stake in the grant making process, we have provided a successful demonstration of how experiential education can be integrated into MOOCs. “