Learning in hallways (with APIs)

November 18, 2012 | 4 comments

I can’t let Clay Shirky’s piece, Napster, Udacity and the Academy, go un-commented-on:

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

You can – and should – read the whole piece here.

I completely agree with it, and I think that startups like Udacity will broadly be a good thing for the world. (Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this is a movement that OpenCourseWare started a long time ago.) Having said this, there are a few important tenets about learning that I think aren’t necessarily captured by the Udacity model.

  • There are different kinds of learners.
  • Learning with your peers is important to some people – and learning alone is important to others.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to education.

I went to public (state-funded) schools, and a public university. I can’t claim to have experienced the one-on-one education that you might receive at Harvard, for example. But it’s nonetheless true that education has traditionally been, at least a little bit, tailored; you could always go to your Director of Studies if you had a problem, or talk to your professor about substituting work or taking a different focus.

In the modern web age, by which I mean from about the iPhone onwards, we’re used to cookie-cuttering users. Everyone gets the same interface, in the same design, with the same content types, because that design is good, it’s efficient, and don’t you love good design anyway? We’re all supposed to write a certain way, consume a certain way, look a certain way.

Applying this principle to education will be disastrous.

There’s a lot wrong with education right now, particularly in countries like the United States and Britain, where class systems are enforced through high fees and barriers to entry. But in a knowledge economy, we should be emphasizing creativity and individual strengths, rather than attempting to make learners fit an ever more rigid, dehumanizing template. (We should be doing that with users of our applications too, of course.)

But as I said at the beginning, I don’t think this is a bad trend. It’s also an inevitable one. Educational content will be open, it will be delivered en masse, and you will be able to access it from anywhere in the world. It will be a great thing.

The trick is how you consume it.

You can use Udacity’s interface, if you like. But just as I have the freedom to take three classmates to the pub (I went to university in Britain, remember?) and talk over our notes there, I should have the freedom to take some of my classmates and discuss on Facebook, or a collaborative Google Drive space, or on some other custom platform.

And that’s where the technology focus becomes really interesting. Web applications have APIs: Application Programming Interfaces that let other applications talk to them programmatically. The same API approaches that allow people to build third-party Twitter apps or to sync Instagram with Facebook could allow people to take streams of learning from the learning service – let’s say Udacity – and pull them into the platforms of their choice. Other commercial applications, or freely-available open source projects, could take that learning and allow you to interact with it individually or in a group. And then you can use the app or method of your choice to submit your work back to be evaluated. And if everyone’s using the same APIs, then everyone benefits: learners get to pick and choose their courses, and the educational providers get to participate in an open marketplace that’s as big as the web.

In this model, the raw course is always the same. But suddenly there are a hundred thousand lenses that you can apply to it, so if you’re a visual learner, or a group learner, or a solitary text-based scholar, you can find the interaction method that appeals to you, pull in relevant third-party information and conversation to augment your learning, perhaps even talk to third-party tutors in other countries (or next door), and have a much deeper, richer, more personalized experience than you could ever have had before.

My worry with the new educational startups is that they’ll try and lock themselves down, in the way that Twitter and Facebook have locked themselves down. If, on the other hand, they can open up and embrace what the web really is, there’s the potential for a real revolution.

Access to free courses is a freedom of speech issue

October 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

ClassroomThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State of Minnesota is requiring any degree-granting educational institution providing an online course to pay a registration fee:

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota. She said she did not know specifically whether letters had been sent to other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity, and officials there did not immediately respond to questions from The Chronicle.

Slate adds more detail about the purpose of the law:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

This seems counter-intuitive to me. Accreditation is important; there are plenty of non-accredited degree scams out there. But banning a free course that carries no degree credits? I’m not a lawyer, but that appears to be a First Amendment violation. After all, that’s all a free course really is: expression. A sensible requirement might be for the courses to clearly say they don’t carry credit, in order to protect consumers, but an outright ban is fundamentally counter-productive.

Of course, there is likely to be a time when the Internet disrupts the institutional accreditation process, just as it’s disrupted many other gatekeeper processes. That will raise some serious issues: I think accreditation really is important to protect both students and employers, and I think it’s fair to say that many online course startups are positioning themselves in readiness for this change. Finding a way to protect the job market, students and educators will be important. But restricting access to information is never the answer – and particularly not here, where knowledge from traditionally expensive institutions is being made available to everybody.

Update: the Minnesotan Office of Higher Education has responded to the furore:

“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller [director of the Office]. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

There’s more over at the Washington Post.

“What it means to be a school is now up for grabs.”

September 20, 2011 | Leave a comment


Education, for me, is still the most exciting field that open source is opening up. It’s a vital part of any civilized society, and so it seems right that the software that helps participants teach and learn should be open. I have no qualms about charging private institutions like Stanford, say, the six figure license fees that some educational software platforms demand – but for tax-funded institutions, these costs and restrictions are unethical. Even for moneyed institutions like Stanford, open source software has built-in feature advantages that commercial or SaaS packages can’t match.

The Tyee, a site covering British Columbia, discovers the movement:

It comes down to how we define public education. Open source advocates might say that all of the educational materials paid for by the public should be available to the public. Some, such as Stephen Downes might go as far as to say that all users of public education, including teachers, students and their parents, should be the ones in control of the entire network.

Well, quite. Education isn’t just another enterprise market. It’s one that all of our economies, livelihoods and lifestyles depend on. Far too important for a significant aspect of the process to be handed over to any one company and locked away in a proprietary system (particularly one that actively sues other vendors, doesn’t fix its own bugs in a timely fashion and charges dramatically over-the-odds fees for its services).

There’s still some work to be done on open source business models for education. People who write software need it to pay their bills for it to be a sustainable endeavor, and most teachers are too overworked to be building software themselves on the side. I think some upcoming server-side products will go some way towards fixing that, and make life easier for educators in the process.

The crusade against college

June 5, 2011 | 5 comments


Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in tech circles about college being a waste of time. It started with investor Peter Thiel’s creation of the Thiel Fellowship, which awards potential students technology & entrepreneurship mentorship and $100,000 of incubation money to work on their own projects. In an interview with the National Review, he remarked:

You know, we’ve looked at the math on this, and I estimate that 70 to 80 percent of the colleges in the U.S. are not generating a positive return on investment.

Over on TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy mused:

[...] For Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.

The touchpaper was lit, and the meme began to spread. The Washington Post discussed the relative merits of different degree majors:

Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, according to an analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

[...] “Education is so off-the-charts expensive now,” said poet and Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath. who noted that his son is considering an anthropology degree. “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.”

A couple of days ago, Mahalo’s outspoken CEO Jason Calacanis chipped in:

The education bubble feels a lot like the housing bubble: it’s based on credit, it keeps growing and a lot of the folks participating don’t have the ability to pay back the money they are borrowing.

Anyway, back to the point. Preschool and primary education in this bubble is three to four times what I paid for college ($9K for Fordham University at Lincoln Center in the late 1980s-early 1990s). A year in school from ages 4 to 18 inside this insanity costs $30K to $40K a year.

People are spending $500K on their kid’s education — before college! Insane!

This is why we have something called “public education”, which is a hugely important resource that none of us should take for granted. I was publicly educated, and my children, when I eventually have some, will be too. But I digress. He continued:

What would a parent pay to have their 19-year-old sit next to one of the brilliant Twitter triumvirate: Evan Williams, Biz Stone or Jack Dorsey?

What if you could pay $25K a year for three years and have them spend one year shadowing each of these individuals? Would you pay $50K a year?

[...] After three years of sitting next to folks at $35K a year for $100K, you give your child $50K to start a company and you’re in for $150K. That’s probably $100K less than you would spend on a private school all in.

[...] It would be better than spending money on college, right?

Cue Dale Stephens, one of the recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, who made his feelings known over on CNN:

College is expensive. The College Board Policy Center found that the cost of public university tuition is about 3.6 times higher today than it was 30 years ago, adjusted for inflation. In the book “Academically Adrift,” sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa say that 36% of college graduates showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after four years of college. Student loan debt in the United States, unforgivable in the case of bankruptcy, outpaced credit card debt in 2010 and will top $1 trillion in 2011.

Fortunately there are productive alternatives to college. Becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or mastering the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” are not the only options.

Enough was enough. The New Yorker attempted to justify a college education, but came across just a little bit elitist:

Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.

Nonetheless, they nailed how education is used in today’s employment marketplace. Assuming that all we care about is a graduate’s work prospects, let’s return to that Washington Post article:

In general, the study found that a college degree is a good investment. It showed that a worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make 84 percent more in a lifetime than a colleague who has only a high school diploma.

Combined with Peter Thiel’s napkin figure that 70% of college programs are not providing a return on investment, and the Washington Post’s report that engineering, computer science and business students end up making 50% more, the numbers seem to suggest that the people Thiel is paying to not attend college are some of the people who would get the most out of college.

The New Yorker article is elitist, but that’s one of the true purposes of universities: to create an elite. They’re gatekeepers: a way for people to hold up a piece of paper and prove – at least in the minds of the general population – what they’re capable of. Standardized qualifications make hiring more efficient (or at least, that’s the assumption), and ensure that an individual’s claimed skills and achievements have some oversight.

This is the essence of a gatekeeper. I’ve written and spoken extensively about gatekeepers, and there’s a real chance that just as other gatekeepers have fallen or been dramatically reconfigured in the wake of Internet models, the fabric of how we think about qualifications will be radically changed. In fact, I hope it will be. A college degree isn’t just an intelligence test; it’s a test of one’s ability to follow instructions within a set framework, and a test of one’s access to resources.

This leads to a simple but important question: if we are to lose faith in college degrees, how can we best represent what an individual is capable of? Could LinkedIn-style social portfolios, with testimonials ranked according to built-in trust metrics, fill the gap? Or will we be left having to take peoples’ word for their own achievements?

I’m inclined to think that we’ll figure out a strong, decentralized, less-elitist way of going about this. But there’s a bigger question in all of this, too. If you take salaries away and look only at the overall education of a person, and the overall knowledge of our global society at large, don’t universities have some inherent value?

I would argue that they do. I also think that looking at direct salaries as the sole measure of ROI in an institution is a short-term, short-sighted way to look at the world. Sure, some degrees yield less well-paying jobs than others. However, the contribution to our overall well-being, and to our economy, shouldn’t be overlooked. The world is a complex system, and just because a degree has a lower financial benefit in the first instance to its graduates, doesn’t mean it has no benefit, either to them or the people connected to them. Think about teachers, or nurses: both are poorly rewarded, but we need them for our society to work. Historians, literary theorists and philosophers are all important, and make our lives better. This is where – or at least, one of the places where – I strongly depart from libertarians like Thiel. Simply put, I think their “enlightened self interest” is near-sighted; perhaps fatally so.

I agree with Dana Levine:

I agree that we should encourage students to delay entering college, but I think that we need to focus on fixing our educational system rather than abandoning it. [...] For some reason, most of the people I knew who delayed college by one year seemed better adjusted than the people who went straight to college.

[...] I think that we should encourage kids to delay college by one year. During that year, they should be able to pursue something they are passionate about, or if they aren’t self-motivated enough to come up with something, they should be provided with service opportunities that allow them to have a more structured experience. After one year, a lot of them will run (not walk) to college. Some will realize that they can make do on their own, but I honestly think that will be fewer people than you would expect. Hopefully the kids who do go to college at 19 or 20 will be far better customers of higher education than the naive ones who now come in at 17 or 18.

Rather than abandoning a system that doesn’t completely work, let’s understand the value of what we have, and try to make it better.

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