Friday, December 14, 2012

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Monday, October 22, 2012

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

the on line education revolution: its all about the design

Because on line education is booming there is a sense that something new and interesting is happening in education. In fact, what is new is the venue for education not the education itself. The courses that universities have always offered were meant to put people in seats efficiently so that less faculty could teach more students. On line education is simply an extension of that model. Arguments can be made for how this on line lecture-based model is better than the old classroom model, and arguments can be made for how it is worse than the old one. But, the new on line models really are not attempts to solve the real problems in education.

What are the real problems?

1.   What is being taught in universities is academic material derived from research intended to create students who can do research and become scholars.
2.   The idea that a university education is meant to produce students who can immediately go to work because they have been taught employable skills is argued against at research universities and typically is seen as a second rate educational model.
3.   The methodology of lecturing,  reading, essay writing and test taking, is in direct opposition to a learn by doing, experiential model of education where students go out and do things and learn from their mistakes.
4.   On line education allows, in principal, the creation of simulated experiences so that you don’t have to actually crash an airplane in order to learn how to fly nor do you have to bankrupt an actual business in order to learn how to run one.
5.    New models of education are explicitly rejected by university faculty, who, in general, do not spend much time on teaching and would rather do research. They don’t want new on line models that might force them to re-order their priorities. University faculty have a pretty nice life and will reject changes to their research-focused existence.

The real opportunity in on line education is to change what is taught and how it is taught, in order to create graduates who can be immediately be employed by a workplace that needs skilled workers rather than theoreticians and scholars.

We have been building on line learn by doing models for over 15 years. Universities are afraid of these  models because they are afraid of the faculty revolt that would ensue if these models became the standard. They are also expensive to build. Students love them however because they can get jobs immediately after graduation and because it is really a very enjoyable way to learn.

The mentored, teamwork, based model that XTOL ( uses depends upon building a detailed story and simulation of actual work experiences. This is not as easy to as it sounds.

To start, there needs to be one or more subject matter experts who guide the development. But, such experts are typically professors and professors want to teach theories. So, finding the right subject matter experts can be difficult.

Even more difficult is the design process itself. We use a team of people who have been doing this kind of work, in some cases, for twenty years or more. All of our senior designers have been doing this for at least five years and as far as we can tell it takes three or four years of apprenticeship to actually be any good at it.

The reason is easy to understand, Building an all day, full year, learning experience is somewhere between making a motion picture and writing a textbook. You don’t usually get it right the first time, in either case. Learning by doing is really how we learn and our people have been learning design by doing for a very long time.

Teaching others to do this is the next step in the education revolution.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Innovation is now impossible in high school curriculum. Thank you Bill Gates.

It is has always been frustrating to work on trying to improve education. No one really likes to see changes in anything they are used to. I have written about this over the years but now I am really angry. Who am I angry at? Bill Gates.

I have finally been able to come close to producing a very novel solution to some of what ails education. I am a year away form launching an on line mentored learn by doing computer science high school. What this means is that that after four years in this high school students will be immediately employable in the software industry. (They could still got to college or do something else, but they would be at a professional level in programming.)

Can I launch this school? No.

At least not in the United States. Why not? Because of Bill Gates (ironically).

Bill Gates has championed the Common Core standards movement in the U.S. And now, one by one, each state is moving towards adopting it, which means there will be no innovation in the high school curriculum in any way. A school like the one I am building cannot exist in the U.S. because it wouldn’t meet the Common Core standards, which are all about the facts everyone should know which were decided upon by the Committee of Ten in 1892.

A new, modern, learning by doing high school that doesn’t teach algebra or literature? Not possible. Teach students to build mobile applications rather than memorize facts about history? Not possible. Teach students to how to launch a business on the internet rather than to memorize physics formulas? Not possible.

Fortunately there are other countries in the world.

Are you proud of what you have created Mr. Gates? No innovation is possible now in high school in the U.S. and you did it.


(If anyone who knows a state where what I am saying  is not true, please let me know.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Joe Paterno, rich alumni, and imminent demise of college campuses

When I arrived at Northwestern in 1989 the President was a man named Arnie Weber.  He told me that his mother once asked him what he did as President. After he described his daily life to her she replied “ I didn’t raise my son to be a schnorrer.” (That word is Yiddish for “begger.”)
At a different moment he told me that the only real job of the President of a university was to provide ample parking for the faculty, nice dormitories for the students, and football for the alumni.
I am mentioning these things because I feel that a university-insider needs to put the Joe Paterno story in perspective. 
(For my non-US readers the short story on Joe Paterno is that he was a football coach at Penn State, regarded as a saint by nearly everyone, who turns out to have been protecting a pedophile on his staff from prosecution for years.)
We now are hearing about whether Penn State’s football program should be punished and we are hearing mea culpas from the Penn State Board of Trustees.
This is all nonsense of course. As usual the real problem is not being discussed.
Joe Paterno owned Penn State. The President of Penn State could not fire a man who was obviously too old to be a coach anymore and he could not fire him for protecting a pedophile. In fact he could not fire him for anything.
Now it may seem that this was an unusual situation. Not that many schools have football coaches who did as much to make an obscure university well known and whose influence and general goodness was agreed upon by all.
But in fact universities the size of Penn State always have a Joe Paterno. The man who runs the show may not be the football coach, but he is almost certainly not the President either.
The man or men who run big universities are the very wealthy alumni. Universities the size of Penn State need tremendous amounts of operating capital to support the sheer number of buildings and acreage not to mention sports arenas. As I mentioned in my most recent column, universities are money hungry and will overcharge students if they can get away with it because they need a lot of money in order to operate. Who supplies this money? 
Alumni donations are the number one issue on a college president’s mind. At Penn State it was Joe Paterno who supplied the money by winning football games and by getting massive numbers of people into State College, PA, six times a year to bolster the local economy.
Northwestern had a Joe Paterno when I was there. He wasn’t the football coach. He was just a local billionaire who got to decide whatever he wanted to decide at Northwestern. The basketball arena is named after him, the football field is named after him, and his not too bright relatives are on the board with him.
He decides what goes on at Northwestern because he can give large amounts of money to the university and he can push his friends to do so as well.
What I am describing is especially true at any private university which has no public money but it is true at state owned universities as well.
The President of the University of Michigan once mentioned to me that he was being forced to admit a student who couldn’t read because powerful alumni wanted him on the football team.
There are some obvious conclusions here. One is that college football is a bad thing. Now I say this as someone who happens to love college football. I even played college football. But really,if football issues drive out reason and fairness at a university (the players live like royalty in comparison to other students for example) perhaps it should be abolished.
People think that football produces revenue in terms of TV contracts and gate receipts and that is why it is there. The real revenue football produces is in the form of alumni donations which do indeed go up when the team wins.
It is alumni donations and the university's dependence upon them that is the real problem. Alumni at Penn State don’t know or care how good the Physics department is. Donations don’t go up when faculty win international recognition in research.
Universities are run by those who bring in money. At Northwestern, I brought in a lot of money for research. I got what I wanted when I wanted it. I understood how the system worked.
It is time to end this system. It is time to end the idea of the big college campus which is like a hungry animal that needs to be fed. 
Local colleges are about as important as local bookstores or local movie theaters these days. Their time is over.
Education, like anything else these days, can be done without physical locations.
Unfortunately, on line education is awful. The reason for that is simple. The physical model of education (large lectures halls and long lectures -- a money saving idea if ever there were one) still serves as the model for on line education. But it won’t for long.
Penn State is doomed, not because of Joe Paterno but because the physical campus and alumni network that controls Penn State cannot last in the world of the Internet.
Campuses will go away. Get used to it. 
It is our job to build on line education that is better than anything provided on campuses now. This can and should be done.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college?

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college? 
There are two questions here really.
Why does college cost so much?
Why do students want to attend college?
Let’s start with the first. Here are some important facts to get an idea about the costs:
Stanford University, as an example owns 8000 acres of very highly valued real estate. They didn’t purchase it and they don’t pay taxes on it but there are hundreds of buildings and playing fields and parking lots and laboratories and streets all or which require massive expenses to maintain. Full professors make an average of $188,000 per year at Stanford.
I am not picking on Stanford here. Its neighbor UC Berkeley has a slightly smaller campus and pays its faculty slightly less, but really they are pretty similar, except that UC is a state owned institution.
To run an operation of this size requires money, lots of it. Tuition does not actually even cover the cost. Universities must constantly ask for donations from alumni and rich people. In addition both of these universities are heavily subsidized by the Federal government in the form of research grants which pay astoundingly large amounts of overhead.
Even so, if they can get it they charge it, so like any business as long as there are customers who are willing to pay, tuition can keeping going up.  
The real question is why are students willing to pay? Couldn’t someone offer a cheaper alternative? Does college really have to be this expensive?
The first thing to understand about all this is that Stanford (I was a faculty member there once upon a time, but they are all the same really) is not about students. A student may think that these campuses were built for them and maybe they were originally but Stanford faculty are not thinking about undergraduate education. Faculty at places like that are in the research business and faculty members have no choice but to look for research money and then do the research that will satisfy the funder and then get more money.  This process does entail paying attention to one’s graduate students who are supported by that money, but undergraduate teaching is seen by nearly all Stanford faculty as an annoyance that one has to put up with and that it is best to buy one’s way out of if possible.
Faculty are happiest in the summer when the students have gone home and they are left with a beautiful peaceful campus in which to think great thoughts, work in their labs, and talk with colleagues.
So why do students go into debt in order to attend these institutions? A more interesting question is why undergraduate education is offered at all at places like Stanford and UC Berkeley (or Yale or Harvard.)
Stanford likes the income of course, but could survive without it. (There are respected universities that do not take undergraduates. Usually the general public hasn’t heard of them because they don’t have football teams or elaborate campuses. One is Rockefeller University in New York.) What Rockefeller doesn’t have, that Harvard has, are alumni who would scream bloody murder (and stop giving money) if Harvard shut down its undergraduate program.
If what I am saying is right, and believe me no faculty member would agree with me openly but most would privately, then why do undergraduates willingly go into debt in order to attend these schools?
In the case of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, the answer is obvious. Saying you graduated from one of those schools, rightly or wrongly, will get you instant respect for the rest of your life.
But what about Florida Atlantic University, Elon College, Southern Connecticut State, Beloit College, De Paul University, or Texas A&M to name any of 3000 I could name?
Same big fees, and curiously, same curriculum more or less.
Now I haven’t mentioned curriculum to this point but students go to college to take courses right? At least that is the common agreed upon reason.
Now any professor knows that students are really there to get away from home, drink a lot, play sports and party on. But there are courses and students must come away with an education so it is all worth it right?
Now here is a radical thought: Sitting in a classroom, or doing required reading, and parroting it all back on a multiple choice test or in some research essay is not actually education. It is school, but it is not real learning. Real learning would involve learning to do things one will do later on in life. Rarely does one write a research paper, or run an experiment, or take a multiple choice test, much less do we listen to lectures. College prepares you for nothing in actuality. (Yale’s graduates may become investment bankers but they didn’t learn that at all, they studied Classics.) Colleges say they do prepare their students and pay some homage to teaching them to think, and there actually are some specialized programs that actually do teach students to do things. But for the most part, your average English major or physics major has learned nothing that he will use in his later life except at cocktail parties.
The faculty don’t care. They care about their research. If you want to learn to be a researcher, Stanford is the place for you. The curriculum Stanford teaches is meant to get you ready to take advanced courses which are the ones that faculty actually like to teach. They are preparing students to do research because they like research and that is all they know how to do.
Now this is less true of the smaller colleges and big state universities where there is less research going on, but even at those schools, the faculty desire to be researchers and they studied with researchers and they really want to try and get research grants and behave like their colleagues at fancier institutions.
So, in essence, they teach the same courses at Stanford as they do at BYU, or Northern Illinois.
What do the students get out of this? A big debt. A four year vacation (assuming they didn’t have to work while going to school) and not much else. Well, there is always graduate school.
Why do they put up with it? Because they feel they have no choice. Being a college gradate is seen as a big deal. It wouldn’t be seen that way if being a high school graduate meant anything at all, but it doesn’t. (And the peer pressure and parental pressure to go to college is enormous.)
The solution to all this: build a high school system that teaches what college should be teaching: practical experiences that will prepare you to make a living or know how to live. (I am quoting John Adams and Ben Franklin here by the way.)
This is why we need good on line universities (and good on line high schools.) When Stanford pretends to offer on line courses in order to get people off their backs they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the needs of the undergraduates.
It is time for on line universities that create real (or simulated) experiences through which students can learn to do things in the real world.
We will be teaching people to work in the software industry through some on line programs we are developing (see in the coming months. Stanford could do that if it wanted to but it won’t. The faculty at Stanford are willing to teach students to do research or to be intellectuals.  Teaching someone to be a programmer or how to open a business is beneath them. (I am not picking on Stanford here. This is true of any research university. It is also true of the other 3000 colleges in the US since their faculty typically haven’t had much real world experience to teach about.)
Now, of course there are exceptions to all of this, but as I said the real villain is high school. We can fix that by building an on line high school outside of the control of government (and book publishers and test makers.) 
In the mean time, my advice to students: think twice before taking on an enormous debt to attend an institution that really just wants your money.

Monday, June 11, 2012

drugs, school testing, ADHD, and baseball

This column was to be about (sort of)  baseball. (For my non-US readers you can keep reading. All you need to know is that baseball requires athletic ability.)
I heard the announcer (Ron Darling from Yale - a student when I was a professor there, say that 100 major league baseball players had been diagnosed with ADHD and were now receiving treatment. He mentioned that one of them (who plays for the Mets the team I follow and the team for he announces) was doing much better this year now that he had been diagnosed an treated for ADHD.

This is so sad and was said in such a matter of fact way that it needed a response. Players are doing better because they are being given speed. It focusses them. I am sure it does. What I am not sure about is why this isn't a scandal.

Baseball went through a terrible scandal when it was discovered that its best players were taking steroids. They were quickly banned. Why not ADHD drugs?

And then yesterday the New York wrote this on its front page:

Kids are getting themselves ADHD drugs to help them do better on tests. Here is a paragraph of that article:

The drug was not cocaine or heroin, but Adderall, anamphetamine prescribed forattention deficit hyperactivity disorder that the boy said he and his friends routinely shared to study late into the night, focus during tests and ultimately get the grades worthy of their prestigious high school in an affluent suburb of New York City. The drug did more than just jolt them awake for the 8 a.m. SAT; it gave them a tunnel focus tailor-made for the marathon of tests long known to make or break college applications.

Here is another:

At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to getprescriptions.

And I was getting upset about baseball!

We have created a society where is not ok to be bored in school (or you will diagnosed with ADHD and drugged into submission.) This has extended itself into sports were it is also OK to be drugged into focussing better apparently.

Now I don't really care if we want to make sick monsters of our athletes. Their choice. So they will hit the ball further. No one's issue but their own.

But when we have so many kids worried about getting good grades and getting into good colleges that we have made them crazy enough to drug themselves in order to do it, we have the makings of a very sick society.

I have been writing about the evils of ADHD diagnosis for 20 years and about the evils of testing for the same amount of time (at least).

I never made the connection before. Its almost as if the testing companies and the drug companies were in collusion. Nah. Not possible, right?

I sure hope not.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

High Schools should not exist; 50th reunions teach you more than high school ever did

I hated high school. I didn’t see anything good about it.
I still hate high school, but now as a person who has spent the last 30 years trying to understand what is wrong with our education system I understand why.
Here are five good reasons to hate high school.

  1. The subjects taught are the subjects that were current in academic circles in 1892 
  2. High school is about college prep these days. The prep that goes on is about AP tests and not about what a college student really needs. College professors can never assume their students learned anything important in high school. There is no reason for high schools to assume that role, except they are intimidated into it by parents.
  3. In high school, the other kids are a student’s biggest concern. KIds intimidate other kids in so many ways that most students can think about little else.  
  4. There is no freedom in high school. You take what courses you are told to take for the most part and must be where they tell you to be. It is a lot like being in prison.
  5. Except for the extra curricula activities, high school just isn’t any fun. Kids should have fun and learning should be fun.
So, it is it in this context that I want to tell a personal story.
The invitation from  the Stuyvesant High School class of 1962 50th reunion arrived via e-mail. I didn’t like Stuyvesant. As a smart kids science high school in New York City it had the so called best and brightest who were, of course, tremendously competitive. I hadn’t done particularly well in high school. I graduated ranked #322 in a class of 678. Notice how I remember that. I had been to my 25th reunion just to see old friends and because I happened to have a place in New York at that time, but none of my old friends showed up.
I had a wedding to attend that weekend. But it was in New York and I again have a place in New York, so I decided to attend one high school reunion event. I am glad I did, and here is why:
I got an email about a month before the event saying that they were thinking about holding a special event and they thought they’d invite the three most successful members of the graduating class to talk about their views of the future. I get invitations to talk all the time, and I wasn’t surprised that I have done better than the other members of the class. (I had attended my 25th after all where I learned that the kids who had graduated #1 and #2 hadn’t done that much later on.)
The shocker for me was whom the invitation came from. The writer opened the letter by saying that he was sure I didn’t remember him but...
Oh, I remembered him. He had affected by entire life in high school and probably still does affect my life. (Remember reason #3 above.)
This kid always wore a jacket and tie to school. Every day. He was in my homeroom, and he was not particularly friendly. He was dead serious. He intended to go to Harvard and he intended to become a doctor and he was going to do everything he could to get there. The jacket and tie was part of the plan.
Meeting him and hearing this plan when I was 13 years old convinced me not to study, not to even try in high school, and to spend my time out of school playing ball. If this was the competition I didn’t want to compete. And I didn’t. (Remember 322?) 
I didn’t compete in college either where I graduated with an even worse class rank and with a C average. And I never wore a tie.
So there was some sweetness in getting this invitation from this particular guy. I had never forgotten him. I did wonder what had happened to him however. He did go to Harvard, but did not become a doctor. He is a PhD in some biological field which is close enough, but he was not one of the famous members of our class.
The event he was planning never came off. (It seems high school politics keep going on 50 years later.) I went to the reunion to meet him.
I was pleasantly surprised. He was certainly the smartest one of the people that I spoke with at the reunion. I told him my story and he admitted that maybe he had been a little up tight in high school and he apologized for intimidating me. Life had made him less arrogant it was easy to see.
There is a lesson in all this of course. The obvious one I have already stated. High school is a bad thing. We should stop having them. High school teaches many bad lessons. The one it taught me was that I wasn’t that smart and I shouldn’t try too hard.
But the good news is that my life taught me otherwise. I learned to trust my own intelligence and to be suspicious of people who are trying hard to be something they may not actually be.
And the reunion taught me that 50 years later real experiences can get you to revise your opinions of things. We are always learning, just not in school.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Harvard and MIT announce free on line courses; this will change education?

On line education is certainly booming these days. Today MIT and Harvard announced a plan to provide free on line courses.  I find this ironic given that I’ve advocated “virtual learning” for over twenty years – with little response. Universities I formerly worked at routinely showed scant interest in offering online degrees or serious online programs. Now, however, with the sudden appearance of for-profit ventures and the interest of venture capitalists, universities are being signed up to offer on line degrees, and have begun independently building and offering on line degrees.

Yet when you ask nearly anyone in academics about these degree programs, the overwhelming opinion is that they’re awful. Even the people promoting them seem to agree on that; in my last column I quoted the provost of the University of Michigan talking about his deal with Coursera:

Our Coursera offerings will in no way replace the rich experiences our students obtain in classrooms, laboratories and studios here in Ann Arbor.

Well, right. Because they are aren’t very good. Reaching 100,000 students on line may seem like a good idea, but we fail to ask the real question: what kind of educational experience is provided on line?

I am writing about this today in particular because my company, Socratic Arts, has just begun constructing four on line masters degree programs in Computer Science. We have a great deal of experience in doing this, of course, having built a number of masters programs for Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus ten years ago (that they still offer, but not on line.) We also recently launched an MBA program with La Salle University in Barcelona that’s soon to be available in a number of Eastern European countries as well.

Now, with the backing of investors, we have decided to start building additional on line degree programs. But – and this is a big “but” – these programs will do far more than replace the existing classroom offerings of major universities. At heart, they’re meant to seriously disrupt the very concept of how education is provided.

Getting universities to agree to work with us hasn’t been easy. Why do they prefer to work with 2Tor or Coursera or Udacity? This is very easy to answer. Those companies want to do what the existing universities already do. Universities do not want to change how they do things. They can’t eliminate lectures, for example, without eliminating the basic economic structure upon which a university is based. They cannot emphasize teaching over research when their financial stability depends on major research funding. They want to essentially copy their existing classroom courses, because they have no other choice.

Socratic Arts, on the other hand, wants to do it right. What does that mean? That means convincing faculty to re-think education in a serious way. To explain what I mean and to illustrate these differences, I’ve chosen eight arguments that faculty have against our methodology. Or, rather, that we have against theirs.

Theory before practice

In most university programs, they teach theory first and practice second. You wouldn’t teach the theory of walking to a two-year old, nor would you teach the theory of economics to someone who was opening a lemonade stand. No one sits still for theoretical discussions when they are ready to try to do something. No one except college students of course, who have no choice. Universities are wedded to theory first because they often don’t know how to actually teach practice, and because it is much easier to talk about something then to do it. But the real reason is that professors like talking and they like research and theory. It is what they do in their own lives. So that is what they teach.

Socratic Arts does it the other way around of course, that is, if we ever teach theory at all, which is often quite unnecessary.


Masters degree programs offer coverage. What does that mean? That means that the faculty have a wide range of research interests and when they sit down to design a masters program, everyone wants what they specialize in to be covered. For this reason, most masters degree programs are incoherent and unorganized. They are simply a list of courses to choose from that represent what the faculty has to teach. There is no end game. No one is thinking about what kind of person they are producing at the end of the program. No one asks what the student will be able to do when he or she is finished.

That, by the way, is the first question Socratic Arts asks when it starts to work with a university. The question is usually met with blank stares.

Replicating the classroom

Universities have classrooms and they think they should always have them because some deity must have wanted it that way. The idea that a classroom is a basically bad idea because it forces one teacher to talk and students to listen, is not discussed. Getting rid of the classroom in the era of easily findable information is sometimes thought about, but cannot actually be done without making professors do an entirely different job than they are used to doing. And professors are, in general, very conservative when it comes to changing the way they do things. More teaching responsibility is on no professor’s list of things to wish for.

Socratic Arts makes professors into mentors or coaches who help students as they need help with tasks they are interested in performing. Our idea of a teacher is much more like a normal idea of a parent -- there when you need him or her to help you figure it out for yourself.

Teachers as information deliverers

Get rid of lectures. No one remembers what they heard in a lecture a week later. They are there for ancient reasons. Most on line courses simply deliver the lecture on line and think they have done something miraculous. Nothing could be sillier. What can be conveyed by a lecture in an hour could take weeks of practice to actually learn.

There are no lectures in Socratic Arts on line programs.

Discussion of experiences, not replication of experiences

We learn by doing. Plato said that. Dewey said that. Einstein said that. Almost every educational philosopher has said that. Education means providing experiences, real or simulated, that a student can make mistakes in; try again; think about what went wrong, and try again. While this does happen in PhD programs as a matter of course, it almost never happens in masters or undergraduate programs, or even in a typical college course.

All Socratic Arts masters programs are experiential. They create experiences that lead to experiences that lead to more complex experiences. They are, for this reason, very engaging and fun. Professors know how to do this, but the very structure of a masters program tends to prevent it.

Simultaneous courses

The structure that prevents it is the idea that a student must take four or five courses simultaneously. This structure exists so that professors can only teach three hours a week and then can go back to research. It also exists because it always has existed. Why high school students have fifty minute periods for every subject is incomprehensible.

When we built our masters programs at Carnegie Mellon, we made the registrar crazy because all courses were sequential and thus no student was taking more than one course at a time, they started and stopped at odd times in the term, and grades were unavailable when the registrar wanted them. We managed by lying to the registrar. Disruption isn’t easy.

A properly constructed masters program would have students concentrating on doing something, and only when they complete what they’re doing will they start on something else that builds on the prior task. This is what I have called a Story Centered Curriculum since the entire masters program is delivered in the form of a story in which the student has many roles to play.

Use of outside experts

Why is the professor the only teacher in a course? There are many experts in the world. On line experiences allow for many experts to be recorded and have the right expert pop up at the right time to share his or her wisdom about exactly the mistake you are making or the issue about which you are curious. Really, in the age of the internet shouldn’t there be hundreds of experts available to students who are working on something? Pre-recording expert stories and delivery just in time is the sine qua non of on line education. At least it is a sine qua non of Socratic Arts’ idea of education. As far as I know, no other on line courses do this.

Deliverables not tests

In every masters programs we build, students have to produce real deliverables every week or so. They are judged on what they built, wrote, or presented, and the mentors then help them make it better. No tests. Any on line course that ends in a multiple choice test is simply a mockery that makes a sham of education. There are thousands of on line courses that end in multiple choice tests. They are useful for pretending we have convinced a bad driver to now be more careful. They don’t do that of course but authorities like to think they do. You learn nothing from studying for multiple choice tests except how to study for multiple choice tests. Real life requires real work. Students should be judged by the work they produce. Socratic Arts masters degree programs are built like that.

I am writing this diatribe for a simple reason. We now have a large amount for money available to start building masters degrees. I am seeking universities who want to work with us, but these universities need to abandon their old models in the new on line space. I would be happy to hear from people who think their university could do that. MIT and Harvard will continue to pretend they are doing something important but free courses are not free degrees and courses never really worked that well in the first place. Students don’t typically attend college because of all the great courses. Universities may like to think that but while a Harvard degree may well be worth a lot, Harvard courses are just a form of entertainment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Coursera, Michigan, and why Provosts never want to do anything that might improve education

Today the web was alive with the announcement that some major universities (including Michigan) have signed up with Coursera, a company that offers free massive on line courses.
The Provost of the University of Michigan explained this new development in these words:

This is an exciting venture that opens up a new avenue for us to expand our public mission and share our expertise with tens of thousands of intensely
interested students all around the globe.
Our Coursera offerings will in no way replace the rich experiences our students obtain in classrooms, laboratories and studios here in Ann Arbor.
Instead, with Coursera, we will expand our public outreach, better connect with prospective students and with alumni, and develop online resources that
can supplement the learning experiences of our own students.

I have been part of the university system in one way or another for the last 50 years. I understand why provosts say what they say, and why universities do what they do.
The funniest part of this letter is the remark about not replacing rich classroom experiences. Does he mean the ones where 500 students listen to a lecture while using Facebook? Or does he mean the ones you can skip as long you can figure out to pass the multiple choice tests?
There may be rich educational experiences at Michigan but they are certainly not in classrooms nor are they in courses any larger than say 10 or 20 students.
Why is Michigan doing this? Because they want to improve education? They could improve education by not actually offering courses in the first place. Any Michigan student can tell you how boring most lectures are and that they simply endure them because they want a degree.
Michigan figures they can make money and not have to change in any way to do it. Every provost wants to spend as little on teaching as possible. That is why there are large lecture halls in the first place. 
And no provost at a research university wants to force faculty to change how they teach or he will soon be an ex-provost.
Coursera, I fear, is yet another make believe venture like MIT's open courseware before it, that will allow universities to pretend they are changing while staying the same.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning Wisdom (or why Khan Academy and MOOCs are a bad idea)

When I was young (23) back in the hippie dippie days in California, I attended encounter groups, psycho-drama and other stuff like that, that was popular in those days. At one these, the guru leader said to me that he knew I was smart but asked “was I wise?” I knew that I was supposed to say “no” so I did. I was a professor at Stanford so of course I thought I was wise. The years have taught me that I certainly wasn’t wise then and that I am not so sure I am wise now, and that anyhow, I am not all that sure what it means to be wise.
I was wise enough at that time to realize that the graduate course in Semantics that I was teaching was of no use to anyone who was taking it. (It was a requirement for the PhD in linguistics, so the students didn’t necessarily want to be there in any case.) Since then I have been thinking a great deal about teaching, about the mind ,and about universities in general, so I find myself asking two questions:
What does it mean to be wise?
How would teach someone to be wise?
Notice I am not asking, what is wisdom and how do we teach it, because everyone (except maybe me) seems to know the answer to that question, namely tell everyone what wise people have said. (Of course, I think that this is nonsense but our university system is based on that idea.)
I am not sure what it means to be wise but I know it when I don’t see it. My children (who are older than I was when first pondered this), are not wise (I hope they are wise enough not be angry with me when they read this. My employees are typically not wise (same hope.)
I say this because I spend a great deal of time advising them all on how to look at a problem, (technical or personal.) They are wise enough to ask however.
I am asked for advise often so maybe they see me as  being wise. I will admit to being wiser about their lives than they are, but I am not all that wise about my own life I think.
So, what is wisdom then? I am not sure, but that won’t stop me from thinking about how to teach it.
How not to teach it is easy: don’t tell anyone anything any wise person has said. They won’t remember it and they won’t know how to use it.
Although I am a great believer in experiential learning and in some sense experience does make one wise. but one typically does not become wise as a result of one (or a few) experiences. Experiential learning doesn’t make one wise either.
What does make one wise? I think the answer is repeated failure of the same type followed by reflection. The great French philosopher Montaigne (whom I consider to have been very wise indeed) never left home without a phalanx of bodyguards. That is an example of wisdom learned from experience.
If my definition is correct, then how to teach wisdom becomes an interesting question. And, inducing colossal failure repeatedly is the obvious answer. But it is not a very practical answer.
We can’t take a class full of university students and put them in complex situations in which they might fail and then do it again and again, now can we?
But, of course, that is exactly what they army does on a regular basis with its soldiers. It is also what an aspiring entrepreneur has done who succeeds on his or her tenth try. And curiously, it is also what good teachers do after twenty years or so of teaching.
To put this another way, wisdom can be learned and so it can indeed be taught, but only if we are willing to re-conceptualize education.
We simply have to get over the idea of teaching wisdom as the transmission of information and we have to emphasize repeated tries and failure followed by reflection.
I am assuming that the people who call me for advice are not actually calling for answers. (This is easy to believe since they don’t follow my advice all that often.) Rather they are asking me to help them become wiser through repeated reflection. I am being their mirror at that point.
Becoming wise requires repeated looks in the mirror.
Can education provide that mirror? It certainly would be nice if the education system took that idea more seriously.
Khan Academy, Massive On Line Courses and other fashionable trends of the day are more or less the opposite of what I have in mind here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Milo and the Rhinoceros, part 2

In a previous column I wrote about a conversation I had with Milo, my six year old grandson.  I asked him if he had learned anything interesting in school lately and he told he me that he had been learning about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species.  We discussed that a bit and my reaction was to teach him that one person’s endangered species was someone else’s food. So when I visited him later on, we ate kangaroo, elk, wild boar, rabbit and pigeon (not all on the same day.) He loved them all.
I visited him again earlier this week and he handed me a piece of paper. It was a letter to parents jointly written by the kids in his class, asking for a donation to the “save the rhinoceros fund.” He had addressed his letter to me (and as an afterthought it seems, he included his mother as well.) I asked him why he was asking me for money for the rhinoceros, and he said it was because we had discussed it. 
I am, of course against indoctrination in school of any kind. I can think of a lot more important social problems to be concerned about than dying rhinoceroses. But this was “science” you see, and not social studies.
I may be morally opposed to indoctrination, but I am profoundly in favor of Milo learning to think hard, so I gave him five dollars to contribute to the fund. (His mother had earlier refused. “That’s my girl.”)
I then added that he could simply keep the five dollars for himself and buy whatever he wanted with it. His eyes lit up. He said he was confused about what to do. I said it was his decision.
Today I learned that he kept the money. 
Another blow against school indoctrination.