P2Peer Education: Bringing Elite Education to the Masses

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.