Early Stages of Disrupting Higher Ed

On my morning run today I had a chance to listen to this recent KQED Forum session with Sebastian Thrun (Udacity), Sal Khan (Khan Academy) and Anant Agarawal (MITx) sharing their thoughts and contributions to online learning.

The conversation opened with Ben Nelson sharing his plans for the Minerva Project, to offer an elite level university education fully online. He recently raised $25M in seed funding to address the issue that the demand for an ivy league style education vastly outstrips the supply and I wish he would’ve shared more of his perspective since he plans to charge students while the other 3 panelists offer their services for free.

It was an interesting discussion where the panelists clearly acknowledged that while their online courses have made a significant impact we are just in the beginning stages of figuring out the best way to deliver and measure online learning where the role of community and 1:1 interaction is still vitally important. In response to how the cost of a higher ed degree is rapidly increasing while its value as a signal of quality and ability to provide job security is decreasing, I appreciated Sal’s comment that we must deconstruct the key aspects of college: learning, credentialing and socializing in order to control quality and costs. There is huge value in each and we must optimize the delivery methods accordingly. Sebastian and Anant shared some valuable examples of how their students have organized both physical and virtual communities to support each other’s learning and how these new models for study groups reflect the teamwork and collaboration we should expect to see more of in the future workforce.

I am so pleased to see conversations like this taking place that go beyond simply bringing content online and are addressing the more complex issue of how to facilitate learning, maintain student engagement and foster community and peer interactions in an online environment. While the discussion was focused on higher education I think, as Khan Academy has demonstrated, this work has broader implications for learning at all levels.

Teachers as Innovators

I occasionally have moments on my morning drive where I’m so captivated by the conversation on NPR that I spend a few extra minutes just sitting and listening. This happened to me on Tuesday while listening to the Forum segment with The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran talking about his latest book, “Need, Speed, and Greed.” His broader message is that risk-taking innovation is the only way for companies and entrepreneurs to survive in a disruptive era of globalization and I was particularly drawn into his points on how education plays such a vital role in innovation. Vijay defines innovation as ‘fresh thinking that adds/creates value’ and I really appreciate his emphasis on how innovation is not always related to or dependent on technology.  In applying this to education, this immediately made me think about a recent EdWeek article highlighting a study that shows ‘Teachers Can Influence Colleagues, Change Schools.’ If more teachers see themselves as the innovators, tasked with the challenge of determining how/when to utilize various edtech tools (which is far more difficult than just creating them), that will drive significant improvements in teaching and learning. My favorite message from that piece is that  “Educators must consider each other the most valuable resource in a system, to be developed and supported with leadership, structures, tools, and processes for promoting continual professional learning.” I believe that the value created from focusing on teachers as innovators and constant learners themselves is the true revolution that schools need in order to improve student outcomes.

He went on to stress the importance of investing in education, which is one of the main drivers of innovation and that recent cuts to higher ed, especially to the UC system, are fundamentally wrong as we are cutting future productivity gains. Vijay’s views on purpose really resonated with me and were the main reason I came back and listened to the rest of the segment. He shares that in an ideas based economy, what truly motivates people is “purpose,  a sense of community, autonomy, mastery, independence, being good at what you do and connecting with something bigger than yourself.” If you know me or have read previous posts, you’ll know how much I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

I find his optimistic perspective extremely refreshing in a conversation around poverty alleviation and education that is often portrayed as in crisis-mode. He asserts that change is possible and disruptive change is coming (with a nice shout-out to Khan Academy and Acumen Fund.) I agree and am enthusiastically hopeful to see what we as a society can create when we focus on greed for good.

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