Practical Elegance

"Elegance is not a dispensable luxury." - Edsgar Dijkstra

Higher Education Needs a Revolution

Yesterday, Coursera announced that 12 more universities had joined their program of creating massive open online courses, or MOOCs (one of them was Johns Hopkins University, where I work, so I was especially excited… we’re not always “early adopters”).

Coursera is extremely cool. I’m currently taking UC Berkely’s Software Engineering for SaaS class (nothing new for me so far, but it’s enjoyable), and I took the Machine Learning class earlier this year. Well, most of it… I got a little too busy with work and family and didn’t quite finish. But I still learned a lot, and used math I thought I’d forgotten. So all in all, a win.

Not quite finishing is a common thread in my life. I’m just a few credits away from a Bachelor’s in philosophy. Also, graphic design. Probably computer science as well. My Achilles' heel was always General Education courses. I want to learn almost everything I possibly can, but generally I either want to learn something so I can do something with it, or learn something because I have a compelling fascination with the topic. Most Gen Ed courses did neither for me, and when I’m not interested, I’m not motivated. This might be a character flaw. Two universities so far seemed to think so.

It seems like the whole obsession with “general education” is dying. Johns Hopkins, for instance, has no general requirements, only departmental requirements for majors (and minors, natch). That’s extremely cool. It also costs over US$50k a year to attend. That’s not so cool.

Last year, Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun decided to offer their Stanford AI class online, for free. They didn’t tell Stanford before they announced this, so there was a bit of a kerfuffle, but it happened. Another reminder of that all-important maxim:

It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

Rear Adm. Dr. Grace Murray Hopper Chips Ahoy (July 1986)

Anyhow, they had hoped for maybe 2,000 students. After a couple of weeks, they were at 58,000. After the New York Times covered the experiment, enrollment had soared to over 100,000.

Probably most didn’t finish the class. But it was enough of a phenomenon that Thrun quit Stanford to found Udacity, another startup engaged in producing and distributing MOOCs (Coursera was founded by fellow Stanford computer scientists Deborah Koller and Andrew Ng). Add to this edX, a MOOC-producing partnership of MIT and Harvard, and you have a significant trend in the world of Higher Ed.

The End of Higher Ed?

In Forbes, Susan Adams penned the alarmist-sounding Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?. But it’s not nearly as alarming (if you’re a higher ed institution) as the prediction by Sebastian Thrun from an article in Wired last March:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

Remember, this is the guy who built Google’s self-driving car, so when he makes predictions about the future… I think it’s wise to pay attention.

Veritas vos liberabit

Something to remember about our institutions of higher education: they’re based on a model that emerged in the Middle Ages; Oxford and Cambridge were established for the teaching of Scholastic philosophy, primary to the clergy. This was long before Gutenberg’s innovation of movable type, so books were rare and expensive, so it made sense to create centers where the books could be read to students, and discussed.

The Enlightenment shifted the focus to the natural sciences, and later the concept of a liberal education came to the fore. The system of general education requirements is based in this ideology. I won’t debate the value of a liberal education, but it is worth analyzing its position as an anachronism.

Up until the 20th century, the idea that a university education was for anyone but the children of the aristocracy (or, at least, the bourgeoisie) would have seemed preposterous. But after the second World War, and the G.I. Bill, colleges were flooded with applicants newly able to afford the luxury of a liberal education. As business began to demand an influx of college graduates, public higher education expanded exponentially, to fill the demand of the children of the middle class for degrees needed to pursue lucrative careers.

Somewhere in this process, the focus of higher education shifted from liberal education to career preparation. It was the open secret of the entire higher ed system, but as long as general education nodded in the direction of a traditional liberal arts curriculum, it could remain an open secret.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Malvina Reynolds Little Boxes

In this process, however, the value of degrees was diluted. It’s basic economics; in a system based on scarcity, the more of something there is, the less valuable it is. And so, the Bachelor’s degree became the new high school diploma. And business discovered that a B.A. or B.S. didn’t guarantee much, especially in technical fields.

"College Freshman Meme: Thinks College Degree Will Provide Him With Career"

Coding a Revolution

Coursera, Udacity, and edX have the potential to create the first disruptive technology in the higher ed domain. Sure, the notion of online, collaborative courseware is nothing new. Blackboard has been milking this space for years, with a product reviled by students and faculty alike. But this is different. Blackboard is internal to higher ed institutions; these companies are taking learning out of the university, and making it available to anyone with an interest. Through software and course content sourced from experts in various fields, combined with certification programs, they have the potential to change the social meaning of higher education.

For centuries, the social value of a university education has been tied to the degrees conferred by an accredited institution. Accreditation is granted by organizations such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a unit of the Middle States Association of Colelges and Schools, whose members are the schools themselves. Self-regulation works so well for the finance industry…

Coursera says they have no plan to offer degrees, only certificates from instructors (as opposed to institutions), so far. Although, the University of Washington is planning to offer credits in conjunction with their Coursera courses. So we’ll see.

Udacity, on the other hand, while not offering degrees, offers a (possibly) more rigorous certification process; rather than just passing the course, a student must take a certification exam in a testing center or online. This carries a fee, unlike Coursera’s instructor certs. Probably not a bad business model (Coursera, for its part, doesn’t seem to have a monetization strategy).

In either case, I think there’s an element of shrewdness here. There’s a principle that “specific coursework…does not belong in a CV.”. Of course, certifications are fair game. My intuition is that (particularly given the background of the principles) there’s a push here away from degrees and toward domain-specific information on résumés and curricula vitae. For technical fields, I think it’s not only brilliant, but past due.

For liberal arts and humanities… I’m not sure. Coursera and Udacity started off with computer science and engineering courses because it’s easy to find a technical solution to grading programming exercises; basically, it’s Travis CI. If it builds and the tests pass, you’ve passed the test. Fuzzy subjects are a little more difficult. But this is an early iteration, so anything is possible.

The Value of College

Many of the articles about Coursera over the past couple of days have followed a similar pattern. They discuss the disruptive (and democratizing) potential of Coursera, Udacity, and edX; they cover the significance of the buy-in from world-class research universities; and then they get kind of nostalgic, wondering if we won’t lose something valuable if brick-and-mortar institutions fall by the wayside.

I think the college experience is something wonderful; I didn’t even graduate, and I wouldn’t trade my years at uni for anything… well, maybe a Cray XK6 all to myself. Not much I wouldn’t do for that. But, I digress. The value of a brick-and-mortar institution isn’t in the lectures; it’s in the collaboration of like-minded individuals in the rarified environment of limited responsibility, educational opportunity, and funded research. Sort of like this:

Okay, maybe not like that. But there is something special about the college experience. Honestly, though, is it exclusive to college?

I lived in collective anarcho-punk houses for years after I dropped out of college… they’re a lot like frat houses, but co-ed and without all the date rape. And actually, more studying.

I could imagine graduating from high school a few years from now, and deciding that I cared more about computer science than a B.S. in computer science. Taking CS 101 from Stanford on Coursera. Forming a local study group, with a few like-minded individuals. Then renting a big house, and continuing to take CS courses together. Hell, maybe saying “screw these old guys who are into degrees, let’s do a startup and make a billion dollars.”

Just an idea. But hacker houses aren’t that new an idea… Farmhouse in LA has been around for a while… it’s apparently a big Silicon Valley trend, as well. Why not do that as students?

What is to be done?

Much of this is speculation. But ultimately, the effect of these startups is to democratize higher learning, to wrest it from the grasp of an elite and to provide it to anyone with internet access. And that’s a good thing, whatever the consequences. I think we’re in the midst of a transitional period in education, higher and otherwise.

My mother taught elementary school for thirty-odd years. I dragged her into the world of computers when I was a tiny kid, and she in turn dragged her school district (with some kicking and screaming). Institutional education is often change-averse, and a little coercion is usually required.

I don’t know if the participating institutions are even cognizant of the potential of this technology to revolutionize how higher ed functions. But ultimately, for the majority of the population, it is dysfunctional. Providing education to all, free of charge, is a social good, and a necessary progression. We’ve needed this for a long time. We’ve just been waiting on the technology. Now that it’s here, there is no turning back. And that’s good, too.

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