Hacking education: Google U

I’m lucky to be at a great Union Square Ventures session on hacking education today. I believe education will be restructured radically and that will be accelerated out of the so-called financial crisis. You can follow tweets at #hackedu; Union Square will put up the entire transcript later.

In honor of hacking education, I’ll put up all of the Google U chapter in What Would Google Do? (the rest after the jump):

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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.

Who’s to say that college is the only or even the best place to learn? Will Richardson, who teaches fellow educators how to use the internet in the classroom, wrote an open letter to his children, Tess and Tucker, on his blog, Webblog-ed.com: “I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.” He said education may take them to classrooms and lead to certification but it also may involve learning through games, communities, and networks built around their interests. “Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert,” he told his children, “you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”

If that is what education looks like, what does a university look like? I asked that question on my blog and entrepreneur and technologist Bob Wyman (who works for Google) responded by abstracting the university and identifying its key roles: teaching, testing, and research. I’ll add a fourth and unofficial role: socialization. Let’s examine them in reverse order.

Socialization is, of course, a key reason we go to college and send our children there. Adults see college as a process of maturation and increased independence and responsibility. Students, on the other hand, may see it as a process of getting away from the parents. Whatever. Jeffrey Rayport, a consultant and Harvard Business School professor, sat with me in the Harvard Club in New York and told me it was designed by a graduate of the university who didn’t much care for the school’s harsh Cambridge atmosphere. In the club, he created what he wished Harvard had been: warm wood and fires, Harry Potter without the pomp and kitsch, the experience—the Disney World—of education. I do think there is a time to have that experience and live with our peers. Old people do. My parents live in Sun City Center, Florida, a town where one legally may not reside if under the age of 55. Why not have youth towns where residents are evicted by age 30: Melrose Place University?
But seriously?.?.?.??if one has the luxury of time and resources to explore the world before buckling down to a job and a mortgage, great. That exploration can take the form of backpacking around Asia, hanging out in a dorm, or joining the Peace Corps. Or these days, it may mean starting a company. Our young years may be our most creative and productive. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google boys dropped out of school at various stages to start their corporate giants. Should we be forcing young people to go through 18, 16, or even 12 years of school—trying to get them all to think the same way—before they make things? Instead of the perennial call to subject our youth to mandatory national service—how’s that for a way to squander a precious resource?—shouldn’t we instead be helping them find and feed their muses?

Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization. We may want to create a preserve around youth—as Google does around its inventors—to nurture and challenge the young. What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, and nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity. It would make them ask questions before they are told answers. It could reveal to them their own talents and needs. The skeptic will say that not every student is responsible enough or a self-starter. Perhaps. But how will we know students’ capabilities unless we put them in the position to try? And why structure education for everyone around the lowest denominator of the few?

Another byproduct of a university’s society is its network—its old-boy network, as we sexistly if accurately called it. That club has long held value for getting jobs, hiring, and making connections. But now that we have the greatest connection machine ever made—the internet—do we still need that old mechanism for connections? LinkedIn, Facebook, and other services enable us to create and organize extended networks (any friend of yours?.?.?.??) springing out of not just school but employment, conferences, introductions, even blogs. Members of Skull and Bones at Yale and graduates of Harvard Business School may object, but as an internet populist, I celebrate the idea that old networks could be eclipsed by new meritocracies. Facebook didn’t just bring elegant organization to universities, it could supplant them as a creator of networks.

The next role of the university will be harder to nurture in a distributed architecture. Research, pure and directed, are values of the academe that the marketplace alone may not support. Unless it has a market value and is paid for by a company, research must be subsidized by foundations, endowments, donations, and tax dollars—and often by the generous passion of the researcher. That will still be the case. The question is whether research will be done in schools or in think tanks and whether it will be performed by professors or by paid thinkers. There’s little reason that research must be performed on campuses by academics and little reason why those academics cannot work in wider networks. Research has long been a process more than a product as papers are peer reviewed and research results are replicated. That is even more the case now as research is opened up online in web sites, blogs, and wikis and as their contents are linkable and searchable via Google (which provides a search service for academic works at scholar.Google.com). This openness invites contributions, collaboration, and checks.

The next role of the university is testing and certification: the granting of degrees and anointing of experts. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-many certification of education—the diploma—looks more absurd as knowledge and needs change. Are there better measures of knowledge and thinking than a degree? Why should education stop at age 21? Diplomas become dated. Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.

Our portfolios of work online, searchable by Google, become our new CVs. Neil McIntosh, an editor at the Guardian, blogged that when he interviews young candidates for online journalism jobs, he expects them to have a blog. “There’s no excuse for a student journalist who wants to work online not to have one,” he wrote. “Moreover, the quality of the blog really matters, because it lets me see how good someone is, unedited and entirely self-motivated.” Our work—our collection of creations, opinions, curiosities, and company—says volumes about us. Before a job interview, what employer doesn’t Google the candidate (a practice banned by law in Finland, by the way)? Our fear is that employers will find embarrassing, boozy pictures from spring break, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they also find our blogs and collected works.

Sometimes employers will require certification. That, as Wyman says, is where testing comes in: exams to make sure our new doctors, lawyers, and PC support staffs know their stuff. But these exams are often given by professional organizations—medical boards and the bar—rather than schools. Preparation for those tests is undertaken by test-prep and commercial-education companies such as Kaplan. Universities ceded the market to them. Still, testing makes sense; it is our guarantee against the citizen surgeon (or that the citizen is qualified). It does make more sense to test students after they’ve learned a subject than before. Tests given before education commences—entrance exams—might better serve students if they discovered not what students know but rather what they need to know. Between SATs and exams mandated by No Child Left Behind laws in the U.S., we are succumbing to a tyranny of testing that commodifies learning. The system tries to turn out every student the same.

Finally we arrive at the core, the real value of a university: teaching. Here I violate my own first law when I say that complete control of one’s education should not always belong to the student. For when we embark on learning, we often don’t know what we don’t know. Or in Google terms, we don’t know what to search for. The teacher still has a role and value: If you want to learn how to fix a computer or operate on a knee or understand metaphysics, then you hand yourself over to a teacher who crafts a syllabus to guide your understanding. When it’s clear what you want to learn—how to edit a video with FinalCut, how to speak French—it’s possible for a student to use books, videos, or experimentation to teach herself. The internet also makes it easy to connect teachers with students—see TeachStreet?.com, which in only two cities has 55,000 teachers, trainers, tutors, coaches, and classes, according to Springwise. I wouldn’t go there to learn surgery, but I might to get help with my stale German.

One benefit of the distributed, connected university is that students may select teachers. Instructors won’t be able to rest on tenure (I speak as someone who has it) but must rise on merit. Today, instructors are graded on sites such as RateMyTeachers?.com, but students are still prisoners to their school’s faculty. If they could take courses from anywhere, a marketplace of instruction would emerge that should lead the best to rise: the aggregated university. Instructors could also pick the best students. A class would become a handpicked team that might research a topic as a group, blog their collective process of discovery, or write a textbook and leave a trail of their frequently asked questions and answers for the next class or the public (what are courses but FAQs?). That product will be searchable and may provide a way for future students to find and judge courses and instructors. It’s educational SEO, bringing the internet’s ethic of transparency to the classroom.
There could be new models for education. One might be education by subscription: I subscribe to a teacher or institution and expect them to feed me new information, challenges, questions, and answers over years. Many schools give graduates refreshers and updates in skills; at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, we call this offer our 100,000-mile guarantee. Education could be a club more than a class: We join to learn and teach together, sometimes handing the teaching duties to the best student on a given subject. Peer-to-peer education works well online as we can see in language-learning services such as Livemocha, where teachers in one language become students in another and where anyone in its gift economy can critique and help any student. It is a learning network.

In the classroom, real or virtual, Google forces educators to teach differently. Why are we still teaching students to memorize facts when facts are available through search? Memorization is not as vital a discipline as fulfilling curiosity with research and reasoning when students recognize what they don’t know, form questions, seek answers, and learn how to judge them and their sources. Internet and Google literacy should be taught to help students vet facts and judge reliability.
Is there a university, post-Google? Yes, these institutions are too big, rich, and valuable to fade away. But like every other institution in society, they should reshape themselves around new opportunities. Universities need to ask what value they add in educational transactions: qualifying teachers, helping students craft curricula, providing platforms for learning. We need to ask when and why it is necessary to be in the same room with fellow students and instructors. Classroom time is valuable but not always necessary. Many professional MBA programs have found ways to limit time together so that education need not interrupt life. The Berlin School of Creative Leadership (where I serve on the advisory board) has students meet in cities around the world so they can tap local expertise. Universities can become bigger than their campuses, and by bringing together special interests and needs from around the world, they can also become smaller, focusing on niches of knowledge while leaving other topics to other institutions. Schools, too, will do what they do best and link to the rest. That requires them to make their knowledge open and searchable; Google demands it.

How will universities work as a business? To quote former MIT professor and satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer about the famous German rocket engineer who came to NASA: “?‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down / That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” If I taught three, three-credit courses a term for two terms to 20 students in each and they paid what they pay to my state-supported university—about $250 per credit—that would bring in $90,000, which is what I am paid (I don’t do it for the money). In a competitive market, would students pay $750 for my class? That depends on the quality of my teaching, the reputation of the university, and the state of the competition. If they pay that amount, it still leaves no money for the university. Funds to support its structure would need to come, as they do now, from public or private subsidies. It doesn’t look like a sustainable model.

Then again, look at University of Pheonix, Kaplan University, and other for-profit professional educational companies that have sprung up teaching students what they need to know for jobs. They’re not academic like Oxford, but they fill a role and work as businesses. They charge more per credit-hour than my state institution but less than prestigious private universities. I think we’ll see many entrepreneurial enterprises devoted to education emerge as the internet enables a new marketplace of learning. Perhaps different entities will maintain different roles. To learn database programming, you go to Kaplan; to learn the entrepreneurship needed to create a new Google, you go to Stanford.

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.