MOOCS: Should celebrities teach online classes?

As part of the production team, yes of course! The reason South Korean tutors earn multi-millions per year is because they generate engagement and satisfied customers. An education model that requires a teacher or professor to do everything is like a Hollywood producer having to direct, act,   film, promote and distribute the film. Is that a winning scheme?

A savvy student wants to buy the best product for her needs – the quality of that product is ultimately measured by the subject mastery she achieved using the course-product. The innovators like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity are already finding more effective ways to deliver the concept of “great teaching”. Here’s an excerpt from Jeffrey R. Young writing for Slate:

(…snip…) Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now: In meetings, officials have proposed trying one run of a course with someone like Damon, to see how it goes. But even to consider swapping in a star actor for a professor reveals how much these free online courses are becoming major media productions—ones that may radically change the traditional role of professors.

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

The professors say they typically develop the lessons and then send them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and suggested jokes. For the lesson on sensation and perception, for instance, Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for products related to the lessons, as a way to add variety to what could otherwise have been a series of talking heads lecturing to the camera.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s founder, said that he models the approach on the way popular television shows are made. “It’s similar to a newscast these days— they have a dialogue,” he said.

“All our instructors are knowledgeable in the subject area,” Thrun added. “However, we often rely on teams of people to produce a MOOC, and often the individuals who show up on tape are not the primary instructor who composes the materials. This really depends on how camera-shy an instructor is, and how well we believe an instructor is able to do a great job in front of a camera.”

None of us know where this going – but I’m hoping to see Udacity-type experimentation multiplying throughout the education space. We especially need it in K-12 where the institutional structure makes it unspeakably difficult to change. 

Khan Academy: Shelby Harris reflects on her first 3 months of KA in Kuna, Idaho

Like most of the personal reflections of teachers who have switched to using Khan Academy — Shelby makes me smile. Her students are smiling too:


I am Shelby Harris, a 7th grade math teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho. I’m entering my 14th year of teaching in this rural town right outside of Boise. Our school serves 7th and 8th grade students and has a population of roughly 800 students. We have sizeable ELL and low income populations and, like all buildings, instruct to an enormous range of student abilities.

I’ve always been a very traditional teacher; in the front of the room, captive audience, putting on a show. I managed behavior with ease, entertained my crowd, delivered lessons meant to inspire to the masses. I loved my job. I also knew I wasn’t doing it very well. I knew I had highly capable students who were bored but well behaved, so they politely smiled through my lectures. I knew I had a not-so-tiny group who was completely lost.

I needed a solution. I needed fewer students. I needed more time. I needed an assistant teacher. None of these needs were easily met. Until Khan Academy.

The day the students were assigned their one to one devices and we started using KA, they were so excited! Partially because of the new technology, but mostly because they knew that math as they knew it was going to be changing. What they knew before was a class where they were either the bored kid or the lost kid. I had a prescribed curriculum to get through in a prescribed amount of time, even though there were students who needed two minutes on a concept while their classmates needed two days (or two weeks!).

I was excited too–but also very nervous. How do you take a mostly traditional teacher like myself and suddenly take my soapbox away and give kids a bunch of screens to look at? I felt lost and out of place. I wasn’t sure where I fit in, nor how to behave.

Fast forward: I’m figuring it out. I am pulling small groups based on KA data and observations. I’m able to give personalized attention to students and focus on the unique needs of each individual. The kids are all engaged and helping each other. And there are smiles. Lots and lots of smiles. The change in atmosphere is palpable. I don’t stand at the helm and drive the boat along while all my disciples row in unison. I am rowing with them. Constantly checking data and redirecting the crew. When a man goes down, I am using data to send aid. When there is a group off course or in uncharted waters, I am pulling them aside to guide their next direction. It’s beautiful and fluid and looks like….well, chaos. But within this chaos there are students learning with a renewed enthusiasm for math, tackling their fears, and supporting each other.

At the end of a few short months, I was doing a lot right and still doing a lot wrong. I know my implementation is still a work in progress, but I know I’m moving in the right direction. The smiles on those faces and improvement in their scores tells me so. 

David Brooks on “The Practical University”

In The Practical University David Brooks asks “What is a university for?” David suggests that the high level answer is “places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge … called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.” 

We may find that mastery of technical knowledge can be enhanced by leveraging the free offerings from online innovators like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity. But it is not clear how far Udacity can go on the practical knowledge branch of the learning tree. What if we merged the face-to-face setting of a live-in residential college with adaptive learning software innovation and the real-time online presence of the world’s best teachers? As I understand it, that is the vision of the Minerva Project.

David Brooks ends his op-ed with these thoughts:

Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace.

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare. But students can learn these skills at a university, through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars.

Nelson’s venture, Minerva, uses technology to double down on seminars. Minerva is a well-financed, audacious effort to use technological advances to create an elite university at a much lower cost. I don’t know if Minerva will work or not, but Nelson is surely right to focus on the marriage of technology and seminars.

The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges.

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

More on the Minerva Project and other innovations in education here.

Megan McArdle on the Coming Burst of the College Bubble

Megan McArdle:

…Just as homeowners took out equity loans to buy themselves spa bathrooms and chef’s kitchens and told themselves that they were really building value with every borrowed dollar, today’s college students can buy themselves a four-year vacation in an increasingly well-upholstered resort, and everyone congratulates them for investing in themselves.

…When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, “Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?” The answer, Caplan says, is that they’re mostly there for a credential, not learning. “Why does cheating work?” he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

There has, of course, always been a fair amount of credentialism in education. Ten years ago, when I entered business school at the University of Chicago, the career-services person who came to talk to our class said frankly, “We could put you on a cruise ship for the next two years and it wouldn’t matter.

…If students are gaining real, valuable skills in school, then putting more students into college will increase the productive capacity of firms and the economy—a net gain for everyone. Credentials, meanwhile, are a zero-sum game. They don’t create value; they just reallocate it, in the same way that rising home values serve to ration slots in good public schools. If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get


Bill Gates on Graphite: a remarkable teachers’ aid

Happily, we are seeing an explosion of digital education resources, from Khan Academy to Udacity. How does a teacher find the resources most suitable to the requirements of her students? Well, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a new web service that will be a huge help: Graphite. This is exciting. See e.g., how the Graphite rating scheme works.


Alex Tabarrock: Industry of Mediocrity

Alex on the new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality – not good news: 

AP: Washington: The nation’s teacher-training programs do not adequately prepare would-be educators for the classroom, even as they produce almost triple the number of graduates needed, according to a survey of more than 1,000 programs released Tuesday.

The National Council on Teacher Quality review is a scathing assessment of colleges’ education programs and their admission standards, training and value.

Not surprisingly the report is being criticized by the teacher’s unions who complain that evaluators “did not visit programs or interview students or schools that hired graduates.” Most of the teacher’s colleges, however, refused to cooperate with the evaluators with some even instructing their students not to cooperate. Do you think the non-cooperators were of better quality than the programs that did cooperate?

According to the report, “some 239,000 teachers are trained each year and 98,000 are hired” suggesting a poor return for the potential teachers. One wonders about the quality of the teachers not hired.

In any case, the report is consistent with a wide body of research that shows teacher quality is not high and has declined over time, see Launching the Innovation Renaissance for details.

Meanwhile, on the every cloud has a silver lining front, Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer for the important non-profit New Schools for New Orleans argues that the great stagnation will increase the supply of high-quality teachers:

Unfortunately, international trade and technology will continue to eliminate middle-class jobs. Personally, I’m worried that our political system will not adequately ease the pain of this transition. However, this economic upheaval will increase the quality of human capital available to schools. The education sector will likely capture some of this talent surplus, so long as schools are well managed. Moreover, if tech progress reduces the amount of educators we need, we may be in a situation where we have both (a) higher quality applicant pools and (b) less education jobs. I do not view the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a positive economic development, but it will positively affect education labor…

The Minerva project plans for different kind of online education

The Minerva Project is sufficiently visionary that it makes me fearful they might fail. Let’s hope not. Ry Ryvard at InsideHigherEd recently profiled the Ben Nelson-founded for-profit elite university startup. 

(…snip…) Minerva’s doors won’t open to anything resembling a traditional university: the for-profit startup expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers. Professors could be located anywhere in the world. Now, Minerva will need to make good on its promise to attract some of the world’s most qualified students based on an unproven idea that relies on unfinished software.

The company wants to be a “hybrid university.” Its students would gather in dorms in major cities across the world, and after spending time together in one city, move to another, but take online classes from Minerva professors on the other end of the screen.

Minerva’s founder, former Snapfish executive Ben Nelson, believes powerful software can teach students better than traditional classes. But he also believes students still want to go to a residential college. Minerva plans to charge about half as much as an Ivy League university.

To get there, he will need to raise millions before Minerva can begin teaching its first class. The company also needs to produce one-of-a-kind software good enough to compete with a traditional campus experience, use what Nelson calls “various loopholes” in the accreditation system to get accredited and attract talent to an unproven idea.


The Minerva Project

Who: Ben Nelson, a former executive at Snapfish, and his team, along with $25 million in venture capital, but with millions more needed.

What: A for-profit university that will have students in residence hall taking online classes from Minerva professors. The software Minerva is working on will monitor student learning and encourage student involvement in ways Nelson does not believe are possible in traditional in-person lectures. The university plans to have four colleges within it and eventually a business school.

Why: Nelson and his team believe some elite students from across the world are ready for something different and that traditional universities have yet to apply 21st century technology to decades of research on student learning.

When: The company expects to run a small group of students through its program in 2014 but offer its first full year of classes to students starting in September 2015.

Where: San Francisco at first, with other campuses in more than a half dozen of the world’s major commercial capitals. None of the campuses are ready yet and Minerva will not own any of the buildings but instead work with private developers who will put up the money while Minerva guarantees the students.

Minerva v. MOOCs and Lectures

When Nelson started thinking about Minerva in 2010, online education had already taken off, with universities nationwide competing to offer online degree programs. But much of the growth of online education was in professional training and the big players weren’t always the colleges attracting top undergraduates. Now, leading universities from across the world are offering free online courses and seem to be moving rapidly to offer them to undergraduates for credit.

Nelson is not the least bit threatened by these massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Instead, Nelson called MOOCs ”manna from heaven” for Minerva. He said he never wanted Minerva to offer introductory classes to begin with. He expects Minerva students will be good enough to pick up basic things like Econ 101 on their own.

Indeed, he thinks it’s “not O.K. to charge” for Econ 101. So Nelson plans for Minerva’s professors to only teach classes where students are required to debate one another or where the professors can closely track students’ intellectual development using sophisticated software. Those things, he said, “can’t be MOOCed and therefore can’t be given away for free.”

Nelson’s confidence in this direction is born in part of a disdain for lectures. Lectures, the staple of most undergraduate education, “are not proven to work,” he said.

Nelson said MOOCs are victims to the same flaws as lectures and therefore make “absolutely no sense.”

Where, if not classrooms, will Minerva students learn? Well, first of all, in front of a computer. “We will not allow them to congregate” in typical classroom settings, Nelson said. The students will live together in residence halls, first in San Francisco and then in dorms Minerva plans to have in the world’s major commercial capitals. Minerva students will have hall advisors and faculty guides for education excursions, but no in-person classroom professors.

While MOOCs are basically supersized lectures offered to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of students, Minerva wants to use learning analytics to scale up Oxbridge-style tutorials to seminar-size online classes taught by professors who can work remotely from any location in the world.

“We are trying to deliver the world’s highest-touch education experience,” Nelson said. “And we believe that to deliver a truly high-touch delivery experience — we believe that if you tell 20 students to gather in a room that will not happen.”

Unlike MOOCs, which are based on recorded lectures, Minerva classes will be taught live online.

Minerva believes it can develop software to log students and professors’ every move and not only track but encourage participation and learning. This, Nelson says, will avoid the limitation of the in-person lecture — namely that whatever is said just “vanishes into thin air.”

Students in the back of a real class are not very engaged, said Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer. But Minerva students, who could be in front of a webcam with their keystrokes being logged, will be on their toes. “You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” she said.

The faith in the power of the software versus the lecture is at the heart of the company.

The software? It’s not finished yet.

The Faculty

A university also needs faculty and students. Last month, Minerva lured Stephen Kosslyn away from his job as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences.

Kosslyn, who started full-time at Minerva on April 1, will be the new university’s founding dean. He will oversee the School of Arts & Science and its four colleges of natural science, social science, computational science and arts and humanities.

“I need to find distinguished academics who can head those, so if you can mention that in the article that would be great,” Kosslyn said.


The Minerva momentum seems to be building with Larry Summers signing on to lead the board of advisors, the announcement of the $500,000 Minerva Prize, and the announcement of the Kosslyn hiring: Minerva Project Names Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn As Founding Dean; Former Harvard Dean Will Lead the Academics and Curriculum of the University.

To be continued…

Minerva Project Announces $500,000 Prize For Innovation In Teaching

All of the big academic prizes go for research. But among the innovations emerging from the Benchmark Capital-funded Minerva Project is a serious prize to reward the educator who has contributed the most to excellence in education. The press release begins with this: 

April 22, 2013 – Minerva Project, which is redefining a top-tier university experience to prepare global leaders and innovators, today announced the launch of the Minerva Academy, a society of educators dedicated to promoting and rewarding innovation and excellence in teaching. Led by Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg, who will serve as Governor of the new Academy, the group will select and award the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education. This international honor and $500,000 prize, the largest of its kind, will be bestowed on one distinguished educator each year whose innovations have led to extraordinary student learning experiences. Nominations are open through November 30, 2013 at and the first Minerva Prize will be awarded in May 2014.

“While academic research has long been internationally recognized, and rightfully so, communication of the passion that lies behind it has gone largely unnoticed. We seek to enhance the intellectual development of students and inspire their interest, while continuing to support the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge within the professoriate,” said Dr. Roger Kornberg, governor of the Minerva Academy. “The new Minerva Academy and Prize are a step toward balancing emphasis and recognition in higher education.”
The Minerva Academy is an honorary institution that will induct the best educational innovators from around the world. Academy members will be identified and invited based on recognized expertise focused on student learning as well as published research. The objective of the Minerva Academy is to promote, recognize and reward extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence by providing a forum for open exchange of new ideas and enhanced practices in higher education instruction.

The Academy will recognize achievement through the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, to be awarded annually to one faculty member, from any institution worldwide, who has demonstrated extraordinary, innovative teaching and advancements in learning experiences. The Minerva Prize is the largest teaching award of its kind, focusing on significant advancement in student learning in higher education. One $500,000 cash prize will be awarded to the winner, who will be selected through a rigorous nomination and review process.


Udacity & Georgia Tech MOOMS (M.S. Computer Science online)

Inside Higher Ed has a long article on this remarkable new venture – “based on interviews and documents, including some that the university provided to Inside Higher Ed following an open records request.” There are 22 pages of internal Georgia Tech docs referenced. Example: 

“It is an experiment that no other institution of our caliber has embarked on (yet!) but everyone is talking about moving in this direction, so if we want to do it, we should do it right away,” the report, produced in late February, said. “There is an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower if we act quickly and thoughtfully.”

There is a glimpse of the financial projections as well:

The Georgia Tech program will have four enrollment tracks for students. Enrollment starts in January, though the first year will feature a small test run of several hundred paying students drawn mostly from the military and the corporate world, particularly AT&T.

Georgia Tech and Udacity expect the program to cost about $3.1 million in its first year. With a $2 million one-time sponsorship from AT&T and about $1.3 million in tuition and fees, Georgia Tech and Udacity
expect to split $240,060 in gains at the end of the first year.

In the second year, without AT&T’s large subsidy, Georgia Tech and Udacity plan to spend $7.5 million and scrape out gains of just $14,848 for the whole year.

By the third year, when the program is expected to be running at full steam, Georgia Tech and Udacity expect to spend $14.3 million on the program but bring in $19.1 million in revenue — for a total gain of about $4.7 million.

Georgia Tech will receive 60 percent of the revenue and Udacity the rest. The money to Georgia Tech will flow through its research corporation. Professors and the computing college both stand to gain from the effort. A professor will receive $20,000 for creating a course and $10,000 for delivering the content — meaning most professors will receive $30,000 per course. Professors will receive a royalty of $2,500 each time the course is offered again.

The posted Georgia Tech document is a wonderful source of insights into how the new degree program will actually operate.