10/22/2013 10:24 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can MOOCs Cure Homelessness?

It seems that a start-up founder's decision to offer a homeless man a laptop and coding classes, instead of $100 cash, has paid off. About a month ago, Patrick McConlogue, a New York City programmer, offered a homeless man an alternative to $100 in cash -- he would give him coding lessons. The man, Leo, accepted and only weeks later is ready to release his first app. It seems McConlogue proved his detractors wrong. Rather than exploiting Leo, he gave Leo the helping hand he needed to get back on his feet.

Digging deeper, we see that Leo's story of how he became homeless is not different from many others. He lost his job at the insurance company Metlife and was priced out of his neighborhood when new luxury condos went up nearby. He became homeless out of no fault of his own. He also didn't lack the intelligence, talent or work ethic to escape it. He just needed the training and resources to start getting a new life and career.

Leo's story is a common one that could be told by thousands of other Americans. Although the unemployment rate remains high, employers are still finding it hard to find people with the right skills to hire. And people who want to and can work aren't able to fill these positions unless they're given the opportunity to learn new skills. We also know that formal places of learning to get retrained are very expensive. Right now people don't have enough financial support to go to community colleges, local universities or vocational skills to take classes in a new skill. Many employers are saying a degree isn't even necessary.

This is where online learning can make a substantive contribution. The new MOOC (massive open online courses) providers such as Coursera, edx and Codecademy offer people a very low-cost way of acquiring those new skills. has started listing some of the most fascinating courses on the Internet today. All people need is an Internet connection and a cheap laptop to access the world's knowledge.

Taking online courses means people don't have to bother coming up with the money or start taking out huge loans to fund their training. They don't have to wait for the next semester to start. They don't have to study for years until they receive their degree, taking courses that aren't relevant to acquiring a new skill. Instead, they can follow Leo's example and combine their existing interests with some new skill and apply a new technology. This is a much faster and less expensive way of retraining the American workforce.

Giving coding classes to the homeless will not solve the problem of poverty overnight. But McConlogue's deal with Leo shows that there are some interesting, nontraditional, and unconventional ideas for educating the homeless and everyone else down on their luck and unable to find a job in today's bleak job market. There's an old adage that says, "Give a man a fish, he eats for an hour. Teach a man how to fish, he eats for a lifetime." McConlogue's bargain with Leo is a great example of that form of altruism at work. Now we just need to expand the scale of that operation and use exciting new educational technologies to make it happen.