Rocket Pitch Redux

In previous semesters I’ve tried without much success to get students to collaborate with each other online. In a moment of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” inspiration, I decided that this fall I will use the same rocket pitch presentations that I used in a spring semester course, but with a twist: teams of students will get 30 minutes of class time to put together their presentations. To prevent advance preparation, I will not list the dates of the rocket pitch competitions on the syllabus — I’ll make a surprise announcement at the beginning of class and see what the students can do.

How Soon Is Now? The End of the University As We Know It

The university as we know it is headed for extinction.

Imagine the U.S. higher education system in the early 1960s – universities were awash in government money because of the Cold War; enrollments were surging because of the GI bill and the baby boom. The paradigm of undergraduate education was the four-year, full-time, residential college experience, best suited for unmarried 18-22 year olds who could delay entry into the workforce. The university was the Emerald City in the Land of Oz – a fortress of knowledge where truth was revealed to humble supplicants.

Compare that with the current educational landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately forty percent of undergraduate  students are older than 24. About half are classified as financially independent of parents. Forty percent attend college on a part-time basis. A huge percentage of students simply don’t have the time for the four-year, full-time, residential college experience that was the norm in 1960.

Simultaneously a bachelor’s degree has gotten a lot more expensive. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the average price of a four-year college education is 2.5 times what it was in 1980. During the same period, real wages for most Americans have been flat. People in the USA now need a college education just to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, but the cost of that education keeps going up. So more students go into greater amounts of debt to finance their educations.

As the traditional college model has become less convenient and more expensive, the opposite has happened to information. When I grew up, newspapers printed the news on paper, radio programs were broadcast over the air, and there were three TV channels. Then cable, satellite, and the internet completely disrupted the media industry. Today anyone can access almost any kind of news or entertainment at any time, and, perhaps even more importantly, anyone can create it – much of the content is user-generated. In many ways this transformation resembles Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press, which broke the monopoly on information that had existed in Europe for centuries.

The same is now happening to higher ed.

The Emerald City is being replaced by an information ecosystem that resembles a coral reef. There’s no moat, no wall, no gatekeeper controlling how the information is accessed or interpreted. It is open source and the architecture is scalable.

According to Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, worldwide there are 4 billion Google searches and 4 billion online video playbacks every day. Every second, someone uploads an hour of video to YouTube. These webpages, videos, and the ability to search them are free.

At this point you are probably thinking that 1) the internet is an unorganized and unreliable mess, and 2) undergraduate students still need the traditional university to organize, evaluate, and deliver educational content effectively.


People interested in learning have been migrating from free but unorganized educational online resources – the webpages that turn up in a Google search and the videos uploaded onto YouTube – to free organized information for several years. Now the movement is toward educational systems – housed at least in part online and frequently open-source – that offer convenient, affordable, and credentialed content mastery.

The simplest example of free organized information is Wikipedia, which started 2001. Wikipedia’s content is 100 percent user-generated.

A step up in terms of quality is MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which began in 2002 and currently has material from over 2,000 courses, such as classical mechanics.

Khan Academy, which began in 2006, now has over 3,000 video tutorials. Khan Academy’s motto is to provide a “free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”

The nonprofit educational foundation TedEd, a spinoff of TED, went live last month.

People can now use this free online content to learn anything, anywhere, anytime. There’s just one problem: how do you demonstrate what you’ve learned to others? If you walk into a job interview and say “I learned chemistry from Khan Academy,” the person on the other side of the table will simply shout “Next!” You need some sort of recognized, accepted credential signifying that you learned what you say you’ve learned.

Historically credentialing has been the function of the course credit and diploma offered by the traditional university. It has enabled universities to maintain an expensive monopoly on higher education, despite inroads by lower-cost but less prestigious for-profit institutions.

Until now.

Students who take the equivalent of an online self-paced correspondence course from the non-profit Saylor Foundation (motto: “education should be free”) and receive a certificate. So what, right? Students can then take an exam administered by the for-profit StraighterLine; if they pass they receive American Council on Education (ACE) credit, which then can be transferred to other educational institutions.

Still not impressed? This month, Saylor and StraighterLine began a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University to make college more accessible and lower the cost of completing a degree. The plan is to allow students to begin their college education at any of these four institutions; prospective students will know upfront the benefits and costs of each starting point.

A different method of unbundling undergraduate education was pioneered at Stanford by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig last fall. Thrun and Norvig taught a massive open online course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students. Students were ranked according to performance in the course and received a certificate upon completion.

This year, Norvig and Thrun started Udacity, which currently offers six free computer science courses and enrolls a total of 200,000 students. Udacity’s plan is to offer certification to students at an affordable cost.

A similar venture, MITxoffered its first free online course, on electrical engineering, this year. MIT has now partnered with Harvard to create edX, a $60 million nonprofit joint venture, to offer free online instruction worldwide. Like Udacity, edX will offer certificates demonstrating successful completion of courses for a small fee.

At this point, you might be thinking that these developments aren’t relevant, because you teach political science, or history, or English, not computer science. These innovations will affect you, if they haven’t already, in three ways.

First, higher education is headed toward a system of price discrimination that resembles a Starbucks menu. Elite universities with established brands will continue to draw students who have the necessary time and money for the traditional full-time, four-year campus experience. The mid- and low-tier brick-and-mortar schools will be forced, due to the increasing convenience and cost-pressure of open source alternatives, to redesign their curriculums or die. They will need to abandon uniform pricing for course credit so that they can hit as many price points as possible, and they will need to go after more undergraduate students who are older, employed full-time, and unwilling to come to campus three days a week between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Second, the transformation of the higher education market will force universities to better demonstrate that the product they are selling justifies the price at which they are selling it. Each item on the educational menu will need to clearly reflect “you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for” because of what open online courses will do to credentialing. Grade inflation is rampant in American higher education, and the massively scaled competition offered by open online courses can produce a credentialing system that is far better than what brick-and-mortar universities – even many of the most prestigious ones – are offering. For example, let’s say that Cal Tech gets 10,000 applications a year but admits only 1,000. You’re admitted, you enroll, and eventually you graduate at the top of your class. In the end, though, you are still 1 of only 10,000. Now let’s say that instead of going to Cal Tech, you take a computer science course from Udacity, or a whole set of them, along with 500,000 other people. You end up being the top student. Best of 500,000 is likely to be a lot more meaningful to an employer than best of 10,000, and you didn’t have to pay $200,000 in tuition, room, and board to prove it. Think what that’s going to do to the universities that aren’t Cal Tech but that (for now) charge $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

Third, instructors will have to pay greater attention to whether their teaching creates value for the student and the university. Massive open online courses are going to generate huge amounts of data on teaching and learning. They’ll be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of particular teaching methods much more easily than the compartmentalized classroom environment. The pedagogies that are developed and tested online will filter into the physical classroom, and anyone who is not interested in continuous improvement in their teaching will lose students to the people who are.

Perhaps more importantly, course content will move out of the physical classroom and onto the internet. Open source initiatives like MIT’s OpenCourseWare demonstrate that course content is the least valuable educational component that universities have to offer, so it’s simply given away for free. The more valuable forms of learning that cannot be easily replicated online – research, project design and execution, problem solving, peer-to-peer learning – will take over the classroom. It will be more important for students to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B than for an instructor to tell them that Point B is better than Point A. The lecture at the podium will cease to exist.

As it moves online, educational content will be created and delivered in a distributed manner. Both students and instructors will become accustomed to feeding it forward – they will locate and analyze what others have done, adapt it for their own purposes, and then make what they’ve created available for others to use in their own learning.

Instructors who are unwilling or unable to engage with content or students in this manner will be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately most PhD programs currently do not provide training in this pedagogy to the graduate students who will be entering the teaching profession.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the entities discussed above.Thanks to Sally Gomaa, members of the PeckNet, and Chana Motobu for their helpful comments. Any mistakes are the fault of my cats, who like to sit on my keyboard.

More on Project-Based Learning

I’m still gathering information on project-based learning. My colleagues have approved a redesign of an interdisciplinary major, and the “culminating experience” course for seniors is changing from the traditional thesis to a research-based project. The course requires that each student’s project be problem solving-oriented, deliver a defined outcome with measurable effects, and be presented to the public.

Edutopia, a part of the George Lucas Education Foundation, has produced a very helpful guide on how to assess project-based learning. The guide is one example of how Edutopia is generating a tremendous amount of data-driven recommendations on active learning based on field testing in the K-12 environment. A simple example is the teaching of financial literacy to socioeconomically-disadvantaged students in Chicago.

Here, briefly, are the guide’s ten tips:

  1. Authentic, reality-based final products provide students with better ways to demonstrate what they have learned.
  2. Incorporate and assess “soft” skills, such as creative problem-solving and global awareness, to better prepare students for the future challenges they will face.
  3. When incorporating project-based learning into curricula, learn what the “big thinkers” in the field have to say about assessment.
  4. Because students will often be working on different tasks at different times, use formative assessment to ensure that students are mastering content and that students’ project development stays on track.
  5. Provide students with just-in-time feedback, in part to give them frequent opportunities to reflect on their reflecting.
  6. Teach strategies for effective collaboration, because students usually don’t know how to work well as part of a team.
  7. Embed assessment methods into the students’ use of digital tools; for example, an evaluated online discussion can result in greater participation among students who are reluctant to speak in the classroom.
  8. Provide students with an external audience; they will be more motivated to produce good work and will need to respond to challenging questions and criticism.
  9. Expand your repertoire of assessment methods and strategies through the free “do it yourself” professional development that is available on the Internet.
  10. Team up with colleagues — they are facing the same assessment-related demands you are.

Project-Based Learning

While stumbling around the interweb yesterday, I happened upon an excellent teacher’s guide to project-based learning.  This guide developed out of a partnership between High Tech High (a network of non-selective public charter schools in San Diego), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the UK’s Innovation Unit.

The guide explains in step-by-step fashion how students can execute a project tailored to most any learning outcome established by the instructor. Because the project has relevance to the students, they become invested in both the process and the outcome, and they take more “ownership” of their learning than they otherwise would.

Projects are scaffolded around multiple drafts, critiques, and a public exhibition. Most importantly, the instructor begins the design process by identifying what he or she expects students to learn from doing the project before determining whether or not each student has actually learned. To determine whether students are meeting intended learning goals, assessment occurs at several points throughout the project, rather than at only at the end after the project has been completed. The guide recommends that students’ work be  assessed in different ways:

  • by the student, in exercises of self-reflection,
  • by peers, to foster effective collaboration and to make it easier for the instructor to assess individuals within a group,
  • by the instructor, using the same methods that an instructor uses in in any other context,
  • by an outside expert or audience, as part of the project’s public exhibition.

Time Well Spent

Maybe it doesn’t matter what techniques we use in the classroom; maybe it’s how much time students spend with the material we want them to learn!

I got this idea after an experiment on the learning efficacy of a collaborative group exercise. Half the students from my and my colleague’s Intro to Political Science classes were split into problem-based learning (PBL) working groups and lecture-discussion groups. The experiment took place during a single class period and included a pre-test/post-test plus a retention test two weeks later.

In contrast to other studies, I found no significant relationship between participating in the PBL exercise and better learning. It’s possible that these results were caused by not debriefing the PBL groups (to keep the experiment to one class period), or because the PBL groups were busy learning skills rather than the content (like how to get along).

It’s possible that the better learning from collaborative projects reported in other studies occurs simply because their participants spend more time with the material than those in more standard settings. Thanks to the two-teacher feature of the quasi-experimental design, I was able to test this ‘time-spent’ hypothesis in two ways.  First, my own classes required all of my students, regardless of treatment group, to write an individual paper that drew on the same material used in the exercise.  This paper was assigned after the post-test, and was due a week before the retention test.  Students who spent the time to write the paper scored significantly higher on the retention-test than those who didn’t.

Second, my students faced the threat of a pop oral quiz each day while my colleague’s didn’t. The data showed that my students were significantly more prepared for class the day of the experiment.  They scored much higher on the pre-test, and held onto that ‘bump’ in the post-test and retention-test.  Again, it seems, students who spent more time doing the reading actually learned and retained more.

Bob Amyot, Hastings College, Hastings, NE –

Tools for online collaboration – sometimes simple is good

I often have students work in teams for different projects as diverse as team based learning, simulations or working together on a paper.  Students have repeatedly told me one of the challenges have is that keeping up with what other people are doing (or not doing as the case may be) is challenging.   Last semester I came across a website that allows you to create your own virtual cork board called [2015 update: the website no longer exists].    While the name is not original the website itself is pretty useful.    There are other websites out there that do similar things but what makes corkboard  so useful is that it is so darn simple. it allows you to post notes – and that is it.   if you put the url into your browser it generates a new corkboard just for you.   if you save that you can go back to the same corkboard. more importantly anyone else can as well and people can make changes at the same time  in real time.    an example of what it looks like can be seen below:

I have not had used corkboard a lot yet with students ( I am planning to do so in the fall)  but I have used it with people I collaborate with and have found it to be very useful for brainstorming ideas and organizing thoughts and responsibilities.  For one project each collaborator has a “nag” note for things they need to get done.  It has become a real pleasure to remove other people’s nags from my note – and also a pleasure to add nag notes to other people.   Of course every software has its pluses and minuses.   On the plus side it is:

1) free

2) easy to use

3) useful for brainstorming and task assignment

On the minus side:

1) it is very simple

2) unless you pay for an upgrade it if someone gets the URL they can see and change what ever is on the cork board.

3) It can only paste non formatted text into a note (so if i want to paste something from word I need to first paste it into notepad or google or somewhere else)

All in all though it has proven to be very useful and I am looking forward to using it with my students.