Capstone app project for MOOC aims to track, help manage cancer patients’ pain

The home page for Vanderbilt's Android programming MOOC capstone.


Nearly every nation on the planet saw at least one resident enroll last year in a Vanderbilt University massive online open course on programming for Android devices.

Now, after a series of three courses that saw as many as 250,000 students taking them at a time, 1,165 budding programmers are participating in the university’s first MOOC capstone project – one that will result in a certificate for graduates and better pain management for patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Douglas Schmidt

Vanderbilt’s Douglas Schmidt, professor of computer science and associate chair of computer science and engineering, and Jules White, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, taught the introductory programming applications and mobile and cloud services for Android classes, along with University of Maryland computer science professor Adam Porter.

The trio posted videos of their lectures and assignments on MOOC delivery site Students had to pass all three with distinction – meaning they completed extra assignments – to qualify for the capstone.

Qualifying students chose among three applications to build from the ground up. One, called Mutibo, is a movie quiz where users answer which thing is not like the other. Another, called Potlatch, is a social media platform for sharing pictures and videos.

Jules White

But half of all capstone participants chose the third option, a concept developed in conjunction with Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, a radiation oncologist resident with the medical center. It’s an app for patients battling throat and neck cancer, who frequently need feeding tubes because the pain from cancer is too great to allow them to eat.

The app would allow them to self-report their pain levels several times a day, Schmidt said, so their doctors can adjust medication or make suggestions on what to eat to decrease pain.

“People like to do things health-related because they’re contributing to society,” he said. “Some people want to use the apps they develop as direct commercial products to sell, so they won’t submit cool ideas because of that.

“We want to help people get smarter about this stuff, not turn them into gazillionaires. This is about broadly disseminating knowledge.”

Third-year computer science major Emily Crowe worked with Friedman to develop the app’s specifications as part of her independent study. She said it’s clear MOOCs are changing the education landscape and is excited to help administer one at Vanderbilt.

Emily Crowe

“I’ve had the opportunity to act as an intermediary between the ‘customer’ and the student programmers in a role akin to product management, which I may pursue as a career,” she said. “Students’ discussion and suggestions regarding the specifications I wrote have helped me to recognize and remedy ambiguities in my writing.”

In the end, the program should collect about 1,000 open-source apps among the three projects, Schmidt said. That means code samples the university can use in its own work in cyber security, looking for vulnerabilities.

If a pain-reporting app emerges that’s ideal, it can be taken through a medical approval process, Schmidt said. Full-time Vanderbilt students are going to use the same parameters to build an app in the spring semester.

MOOC students who get stumped can post questions in online forums to be answered by staff and other participants. The eight-week capstone concludes Dec. 5, after which students will peer-grade each other to see who receives certificates of completion.

“I think it’s a fascinating model to be able to take all of this know-how from the students and apply it to real problems,” White said. “With the medical center problem in particular, we’re getting to see all these solutions from really bright people we wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Android MOOC By The Numbers

193 – Countries with participating students

196 – Countries on Earth

40 – Percentage of Android MOOC students from emerging economies

4 – Percentage of Android MOOC students with doctorate degrees

250,000 – Students who enrolled in the first of three courses

1,165 – Students who enrolled in the capstone


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering