Hacking education

Educators – like musicians, journalists, carmakers, and bankers before them – won’t know what hit them. But as sure as change is overtaking every other sector of society, it will overtake education – as well it should. Our cookie-cutter, one-pace-fits-all, test-focused system is not up to the task of teaching the creators of the new Googles.

I’m one among many who believe that there are huge opportunities in education, not just to change and improve it but to find new business opportunities. That’s true especially now, as the economic crisis forces people to reconsider and change paths. Note the post below about increased applications at journalism schools. A friend of mine who works in a community college is seeing a surge of people coming back to school to finish degrees and buff up resumes.

I’ve seen this commercial a few times with its stirring call for change and expansion of education. It comes from for-profit Kaplan University (a division of Washington Post-Newsweek; indeed, the division that subsidizes the newsrooms there; as journalism becomes more educational, I believe the can find synergies beyond financial ones). Kaplan is arguing that its for-profit schools can give students more practical, more useful education in more ways:

Here’s another Kaplan ad:

Now see this statement of need by students at Kansas State in the digital ethnography class of the amazing Michael Wesch:

I put those up in the wrong order. The students show the need; Kaplan thinks it has a solution.

For today’s 30 days of WWGD?, here are snippets from the beginning and end of my chapter on education, Google U:

* * *

Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class. . . .

On its official blog, Google gave advice to students, not about where they should learn but what they should learn. Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management, blogged that the company is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” His example: The routine way to solve the problem of checking spelling would be use a dictionary. The non-routine way is to watch all the corrections people make as they refine their queries and use that to suggest new spellings for words that aren’t in any dictionary. Rosenberg said Google looks for people with five skills: analytical reasoning (“we start with data; that means we can talk about what we know, instead of what we think we know”); communication skills; willingness to experiment; playing in a team; passion and leadership. “In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”

Rosenberg’s best advice for students and universities: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? I wonder.

[Thanks to Fred Wilson for the headline to this post]

  • http://owenbrunette.com Owen Brunette

    Unfortunately with free training material and life experiences available you can succeed in giving yourself the best education but will still not be attractive to the majority of organizations. The personal branding caused by association with a Harvard, Yale or Columbia is considerable and in practice out ways the best experience on a resume in the decision making of many.

    The selection process often relies on the elevator sound bite … from Stanford. Or the whiz bang impact on the hirer. Decision makers lack the time or confidence to make their own decisions and rely on GPA scores despite the fact that most universities in the world have no such thing. The “You don’t get fired for buying IBM” gambit has its role in hiring too. An executive director friend in his late 40s without a university degree has found it necessary to take a part time NYU degree, not for education, but to work around this gate.

    Ask an immigrant from South Asia with a university degree from an institution with an academic rather than financial selection process which has application to acceptance ratios over 100:1 (As oppose to Harvard’s 30:1) and you will find that it isn’t their education that is limiting them but the branding. The need to brand, test and certify rather than educate unfortunately drives all too much of education. And the need for simple third party assessment to filter applicants drives much of the selection process. Changes are first needed in the minds of the HR and managerial decision makers which will in good time cause the search for effective education by parents and students to reshape the role of institutions. In the current climate this is likely to be spear headed by significant numbers who can nolonger afford university fees and lifestyle but they will have much to overcome when getting hired into good organizations. The future will arrive but after the usual very long delay.

  • tom coscarelli

    Jeff:

    Or go to Yale for free:
    http://oyc.yale.edu/

    tom
    (Raccoon coat optional.)

  • An educator

    Sure, it’s easy to say that Google will revolutionize education. But how will that work with non-reading 8-year-olds? Jeff, look closely at the reasons kids can’t read. It’s not because they don’t have access to Google. There are lots of reasons, and likely they are ill-served by teachers who have not been properly taught to teach.

    Believe it or not, teaching a professional skill, like doctoring or lawyering. It can be learned, and improved upon. Teachers are not “born.” They learn to do good work, both by studying and by doing. Medical students train under skilled physicians, lawyers by mock trials and then as apprentices in law firms. We ask teachers to jump into classrooms without the same kind of education about their professional work.

    What would Google do about that?

  • http://shootingbynumbers.com Peter Ralph

    Check out Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class” -

  • http://blog.threestarleadership.com Wally Bock

    This sounds a bit like “The Great Teaching Machine 2.0.” For decades we heard that computers would revolutionize education so that every student got a customized version. That hasn’t happened and it’s not the fault of technology.

    Without a reform of a system that moves students through in lockstep, technology won’t be much help. But my grandson who is great at reading but needs help in math attends class with everyone else, regardless of their needs and how they all relate.

    Another issue is that resources are not all that’s needed for education. I was fortunate to attend school in the Golden Age of the New York Public School system. What I came out of that schooling with was not as much a set of facts as an understanding of how to learn.

    Someone has to teach you how to find and evaluate the resources. You have to learn how to marshal them to meet a challenge. You have to learn how to express your judgments.

    Who will do that? The private sector, the Kaplans of the world, do it well for people who can pay. What about the rest?

  • http://www.danielbachhuber.com/ Daniel

    I feel as though the Kaplan videos are a bunch of marketing bull and that the real innovation won’t come out of the established institutions, but rather from the grassroots. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are already kicking the pants on any networking that I would’ve traditionally done through my school. What I really need, beyond all of the free educational material out there, is a rapid certification system that can take place of the traditional degree.

  • Guy Love

    For many years, futurists have predicted the demise of our antiquated industrial age educational system. The idea that an assembly line of students can be manufactured from standarized processes and centralized educational facilities has been promoted and nutured during the 20th century. As a nation we have a large investment in educational institutions, which have spawned very large bureaucracies that have a self-interest to protect those institutions and make sure that nothing changes the status quo. Evaluating the past few decades of standarized tests and looking at the current high school drop out rates nationwide, it appears this system is failing irregardless of the money we spend on it.

    There is one group that is bucking this trend and takes the opposite approach, which is to tailor the education of the student to the student’s individual tastes and capabilities. This group has built a multi-billion dollar industry of curriculum and relies heavily on best-of-breed teachers that are distributed through the web and electronic media. They do all this in spite of subsidizing the public system and in spite of societal blow back. Like all pioneers, the homeschooling movement presses on and is building out the future of our educational system. In a sense they are already putting into practice the WWGD concept. This approach is all about decentralizing education and putting the student in the driver seat, which is a scary thought for those entrenched educational bureaucrats, but just happens to align perfectly with our transition into the information age.

  • http://wayoftheinfonaut.blogspot.com the_infonaut

    While your post focuses on education, I think the other side of the coin is that we have to ask what education will be for in the future?

    Certainly given the uncertainties in today’s labour market (not just in the short term), I think we will have to reevaluate what we want from education – as simply accumulating knowledge in order to pass exams is not going to guarantee security

    Ken Robinson has a great talk over on TED (http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/66) about how schools should nurture creativity rather than stifle it.

  • http://brasstacksdesign.com Alan Jacobson

    Jeff,

    Once again we are in agreement. Check out the new online learning platform at http://tweentribune.com

    Then hear what teachers are saying about it here:

    http://tweentribune.com/content/what-teachers-are-saying-about-tweentribune

  • http://wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    re: “The Great Teaching Machine 2.0.”
    Most “teaching machine” software that I’ve seen has focused almost exclusively on changing the student. The software is basically unchanging while the student is expected to change (learn).

    Personally, I think that if Google was to build a teaching machine, they would probably treat that machine much like they do their search engine and advertising technology. i.e. the machine itself would be constantly tested and it would be expected to learn from and improve after every interaction with every student. We would assume that every student can learn all that needs to be learned, what we’d be looking for is the most effective and efficient way to enable that learning. Any student who didn’t get an A+ would be considered a failure of the machine…

    Today, when we give a student a test, the question is: How did the student do? But, if we were doing this right, the question behind every test would be: How did the teacher do?

    Online you can easily do this sort of “testing of the machine” since you’ve got the opportunity for large audiences. Think of a text that is supposed to teach some set of concepts… There are hundreds of ways to write that text. The mystery is in finding which way is the best way for each student and for each class of students. Given a large population of students, one can test each of the hundreds of variants in the same way that Google tests ads or search engine results. Then, the winning texts can be modified slightly in endless ways and re-tested to see if the changes improved results or hurt them and to see if there were indicative variances in responses between groups and classes of students.

    If you want the students to learn, you must focus on testing the teachers, not the students…

    bob wyman

    • Andy Freeman

      > But, if we were doing this right, the question behind every test would be: How did the teacher do?

      Whatever the virtues of that position, it is politically impossible.

      The NEA and the Democrat party believe that the purpose of public education spending is to pay teachers. The Republicans are unwilling to die on that hill.

      • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

        Yes, I understand the political difficulty of “testing teachers” — if those teachers are humans… However, the same constraints don’t apply to software systems.

        bob wyman

  • http://connectingmetoyou.com/ Andy Santamaria

    As a 1st year journalism student, and someone who is extremely interested in how education works, I thought this post was great. It is really exciting to know that there are more people out there who are ready to embrace the fact that times are changing and will always be changing!

    This will be my second degree so I’m paying a lot more attention to the education process this time. My generation has always been told by our parents that there is only one way to success and happiness. Get a 4 year degree, get a job. In this day and age, the only industries that can play by those rules effectively are healthcare and Law. Even lawyers are starting to feel the pressure of these times.

    I can’t wait to see what new breakthroughs are coming to education…So I’m working on my own :)

  • Foobarista

    The question of certification will have to be dealt with. One wonders whether a self-directed degree program, done from home with internet teaching, and “certified by Harvard”, could ever pass HR muster.

    Part of what keeps the bureaucracy going is the need for certification, which forces even “alternate” approaches into the existing model. After all, students have to get jobs, and Google itself is very much an edu-snob in hiring. A self-taught programmer without hotshot grades from top-shelf universities would not make it past Googles’s HR gatekeepers – unless he was a world-level rockstar.

  • Eleanor Swain

    Traditional universities have one all-powerful tool in confrontations with the new for-profit schools or any grassroots movements; that tool is accreditation. One example, when law schools began to expand and professionalize in the early twentieth century, some questioned why one needed an undergraduate degree to go to law school. (An excellent question, I might add. Just think how we would regard lawyers today if they were merely trade school graduates!) The legal profession invoked the “standards” argument and won the day. If your profession has an accrediting association, it is a powerful took to prevent change.

  • Andy Freeman
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  • Jason Brasskey

    Here’s an interesting video on this topic.

    Jason (EducationDynamics)

  • Jason Brasskey
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