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Summary:

About a year ago, a friend posed to me the following question:  “Why do students plunk down $150,000 for a 4-year education at MIT when virtually all of the courseware is available free of charge online?” Not only was it a great question, but answering it […]

blackboardAbout a year ago, a friend posed to me the following question:  “Why do students plunk down $150,000 for a 4-year education at MIT when virtually all of the courseware is available free of charge online?” Not only was it a great question, but answering it is critical to bringing elite levels of higher education to the online masses.

Like so many other industries, early attempts at delivering online education have generally consisted of making available the same content that’s found offline. While this is a good start, the key to online education is amplifying the way in which we learn when we’re at school — from our peers.

Modeling Agencies vs. the U.S. Marine Corps

Malcolm Gladwell in 2005 wrote an entertaining piece in The New Yorker entitled “Getting In” that distinguishes between institutions that select and promote (modeling agencies) from those that improve (the Marines):

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modeling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide.

Gladwell goes on to suggest that perhaps the Ivy League resembles a modeling agency more than it does The Marine Corps. But rather than take on that debate here and now, let’s instead focus on the objective of making online education improve anyone with the interest to learn — that is, on treatment effects.

How Important Are Great Teachers?

Everyone has had a teacher who’s made a difference in his or her life.  But of all the teachers, professors and tutors you’ve had, how many were great?  In an informal survey of my friends about their collective 80-plus teachers from grade school through college, the average number of “great teachers” was three. That’s 3.8 percent.  Even if I take K-8 out and evaluate high school through college, the great teacher percentage barely breaks 5 percent.  And many of these teachers were considered great because of the personal attention they gave individual students, so bringing them to the masses would likely take away from some of their greatness.

We should absolutely find and reward great teachers, but I suspect that the key to expanding education to everyone is by changing the definition of “teacher.” When I asked those same people how they learned, they all mentioned peers — other students; study group members and project or lab team members; fraternity brothers; tutors; siblings and parents.

The Socratic Method

Harvard Business School teaches nearly every class with the case study method, itself a form of the Socratic Method.  Students are given a case to study prior to class and the professor acts as a moderator for the discussion. I found the strategy to be very effective; the diverse background and experience of students in the class makes the discussion especially rich and interesting.

Each class kicks off with a cold call, and everyone is at risk of being asked to start off the case. If you blow a cold call, your grade suffers significantly and so does your reputation — great incentives to do your work every night. More broadly, that’s one of the things that differentiates being in school vs. watching MIT videos online. In order to bring elite education online, there must be a similarly strong incentive system.

After the chosen student opens the case, the rest are permitted to begin a debate.  Students are rewarded not only for providing well thought-out arguments, but for offering differing opinions. This debate stimulates a student’s brain in a way that a lecture, reading or watching a video simply does not. If you measured the average heart rate of a student in a lecture vs. a Socratic Method alternative, I have no doubt that you would see a significant difference. I don’t know the physiology behind why this may make your brain more likely to engage in learning, but it does. In a big way.

My best teachers have always approached education with a form of the Socratic Method. They understand that telling someone the answer rarely imparts knowledge about anything other than the lecturer’s intellect.

What Does All This Mean for Online Education?

Online communities can be deployed to deliver peer-to-peer education in a way that is far superior to anything else that exists online today. Using some form of community-driven Socratic Method, strong incentives beyond self-edification, and a way to measure and certify knowledge, online education will be able to deliver an Ivy League-quality education to anyone with the desire to learn.

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  1. University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s first tuition-free, online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education. The high-quality, low-cost and global pedagogical model embraces the worldwide presence of the Internet and dropping technology costs to bring collegiate level studies to even the most remote places on earth. With the support of respected academics, humanitarians and other visionaries, the UoPeople student body represents a new wave in global education.

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  2. draftMedia (draftmedia) ‘s status on Sunday, 16-Aug-09 13:50:51 UTC – Identi.ca Sunday, August 16, 2009
  3. @Mike,

    Interesting article. I had a discussion of this very subject with a soon to be freshman (beginning next week) at Berkeley yesterday. Like you, I also don’t believe that online lectures come close to replicating the learning environment fostered by peer interaction (Socratic Method), which in and of itself creates the richer experience. Of note, Carnegie Mellon’s business school combines case methodology with traditional lectures. However, students are required in ALL classes to engage in discussions of the subject matter being graded for the same abilities to formulate arguments and analysis. I found this approach to not only be effective, but have applied it successfully online while managing complex engineering projects and using online collaboration tools. My example has clear incentives for all, so it isn’t quite the same as peer to peer education, but does prove that the interactive learning experience can be replicated in certain conditions.

    My $.02,

    Best…

  4. Jon Husband (wirearchy) ‘s status on Sunday, 16-Aug-09 21:37:07 UTC – Identi.ca Sunday, August 16, 2009
  5. Jon Husband (wirearchy) ‘s status on Sunday, 16-Aug-09 21:38:09 UTC – Identi.ca Sunday, August 16, 2009
  6. well, divine social interaction is a key feature – though perhaps vidcon interface could handle some of this (though it will never be the same)

    …but the real issue appears to just be about certified degrees – all of the opencourseware in the world from mit still won’t pass the college recruiters sniff test until top level execs push the message out to hr that these self-taught individuals are worth a screening…but in this market, really, there’s no premium for the “open market” of recent grads and experienced hires, so it will (imho) be a long, long time before these students flow into the marketplace…

    the best model could perhaps be the “goddard/antioch/hampshire” low residency approach – but incorporate other school curriculum – but all at lower cost (much lower, way lower) with a valid and certified (and verifiable) degree received…

  7. Shankar Saikia Sunday, August 16, 2009

    ONLINE EDUCATION, HUMAN CAPITAL & CHANGE MANAGEMENT

    This is a great post because of its connection to what I believe is the most scarce resource – human capital. I believe that providing effective online education will require not only a different method of delivery (instead of passive online content there also needs to be the community-effect that Michael alludes to), but also a change of behavior, attitude and processes – something that consultants refer to as change management. In other words, learners have to change how they learn.

    Here is the tricky part – how do we change the processes and attitudes that are so ingrained in learners – the socratic method worked in the days of Socrates (;) ) and it works at the Harvard Business School but how will you get the rest of us mortals to embrace the Socratic method?

    Speaking of human capital, there is a mistaken belief that areas with a lot of people (e.g., in India, China etc.) are sources of great human capital. I disagree. The educational system in many of these countries is not producing the type of “treatment effects” training needed to produce the great workers/thinkers/ etc. that the world needs. I sincerely believe that better education using technology AND a change in the learning process is the key to enhanced human capital. One good programmer is better than 10 bad ones! That good programmer or statistician etc. will emerge from where the educational system is better!

    We need to find a way to enhance our human capital, and to Mike’s point, it’s going to happen because of a better educational system using technology. Good teachers are not replicable, good technology and processes are.

  8. Online education does need more teachers and teaching. That much is evident. Unfortunately, the solution to the problems of online education can’t be easily boiled down to the last paragraph.

    Unfortunately, what works for you doesn’t work for everyone, and especially for every subject. It’s powerful for the subjects where it works, particularly in business, social sciences and philosophy. It’s an experience every student should have, but the Socratic Method alone is measurably no better than lectures alone are in teaching relatively static concepts of basic mathematics and sciences, and it won’t engage students who can’t effectively participate at the speed of a lively classroom debate.

    The cornerstones of all education are in determining a the optimal method of teaching a subject to a student and effectively applying that method.

  9. There are two separate distinctions that I believe are very illuminating with regards to innovation in education. The first is realizing that particularly in technical education, learning the processes and procedures and practices of conducting research, methodological discovery and creative innovation is as important, perhaps even more so, than learning the content and subject matter.

    The second distinction is that useful instruction in the above endeavors can be thought of as occurring in two modalities, one being the basic instruction in techniques and subject matter and tools and detail, and the other through mentorship in the practices and processes.

    With those two insights, the most important distinctions between the freely available online courseware and paying to attend elite universities become apparent; while the online materials can offer subject matter, they are poor mechanisms for mentorship and training in the practice.

    It’s like trying to learn to play soccer by yourself, versus going to a camp where you can play and be coached by a series of World Cup champions, and play full games with full teams on a regular basis. Without the elite coaches, you might learn to juggle a ball impressively, but you’re unlikely to ever be a champion league player without being in the environment practicing the actual game with elite players for ~10k hours.

    The real value is in being immersed in the environment where you can learn through example and coaching and practically living with these technical superstars who have real experience. You can also point to the value of investments in laboratory and equipment and software infrastructure which you will never have in your apartment, as well as access to grant funds and agencies to subsidize technical efforts, but those pale in comparison.

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