Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hacking the EDU Trifecta

Education is already free. Certification and degrees are not.

Liberating knowledge is useful in that it brings convenience to education, but the nut that really needs cracking is how to make certification, courses, grading, textbooks, teaching, and degrees, scalable and cheap.

There are three main components that need to be hacked to make this happen:
  1. The University
  2. The Professor
  3. The Textbook
There are efforts underway to hack each of these components and I just wanted to share some things I had found this week regarding each point:
  1. The University. The advantage of the university is that there is power in proximity, communication, and interaction. But with technology, it will no longer be required that we are in the same room. Tech University of America is bringing college courses to Facebook. Now I honestly would not want to complete an entire degree over Facebook, but as someone in between my undergrad and grad schooling, I would be interested in taking a course or two. Just one example of a scalable solution driving The University to continue losing its relevancy.
  2. The Professor. Read a great blog article by the VC, Fred Wilson. The article is titled Let the Student Teach. He references another post and quotes this great story:

    Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to pilot a program called "independent study", that allowed any student maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that was an achievement in those days, when a C -- 60% -- really was the average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of 'brainy' students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring group (the 'keeners') who did nothing but study to maintain high grades (usually at their parents' behest); but the other half were creative, curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my energies into self-study.

    To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost 90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I'd become friends with some members of the 'clique' I had aspired to join, and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together (and critiqued each others' work).

    As the year progressed, the 'keeners', to my amazement, found they were struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks -- on tests we didn't attend classes for or study for -- were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare -- especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of 'independent' study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do -- inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.

    The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province -- an almost unheard-of 94%.

    Another great way to make great teaching scalable is to open access. This can mean larger classrooms or as is the case in Korea, letting the best teachers speak in sports arenas. Let the teachers become super stars.
  3. The Textbooks. Found an interesting company this week whose goal is to make etextbooks free to students. FlatWorldKnowledge is bringing great texts digital and think they have a model to make it sustainable. While the ebooks are free, their revenues come from students paying to print the book, softcover versions, quiz banks, flash cards, and other study aids. They are venture funded, having raised $8M from Greenhill SAVP, High Peaks Venture Partners and Valhalla Partners. Here is a their clip explaining the product.

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