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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Harvard and MIT announce free on line courses; this will change education?

On line education is certainly booming these days. Today MIT and Harvard announced a plan to provide free on line courses.  I find this ironic given that I’ve advocated “virtual learning” for over twenty years – with little response. Universities I formerly worked at routinely showed scant interest in offering online degrees or serious online programs. Now, however, with the sudden appearance of for-profit ventures and the interest of venture capitalists, universities are being signed up to offer on line degrees, and have begun independently building and offering on line degrees.

Yet when you ask nearly anyone in academics about these degree programs, the overwhelming opinion is that they’re awful. Even the people promoting them seem to agree on that; in my last column I quoted the provost of the University of Michigan talking about his deal with Coursera:

Our Coursera offerings will in no way replace the rich experiences our students obtain in classrooms, laboratories and studios here in Ann Arbor.

Well, right. Because they are aren’t very good. Reaching 100,000 students on line may seem like a good idea, but we fail to ask the real question: what kind of educational experience is provided on line?

I am writing about this today in particular because my company, Socratic Arts, has just begun constructing four on line masters degree programs in Computer Science. We have a great deal of experience in doing this, of course, having built a number of masters programs for Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus ten years ago (that they still offer, but not on line.) We also recently launched an MBA program with La Salle University in Barcelona that’s soon to be available in a number of Eastern European countries as well.

Now, with the backing of investors, we have decided to start building additional on line degree programs. But – and this is a big “but” – these programs will do far more than replace the existing classroom offerings of major universities. At heart, they’re meant to seriously disrupt the very concept of how education is provided.

Getting universities to agree to work with us hasn’t been easy. Why do they prefer to work with 2Tor or Coursera or Udacity? This is very easy to answer. Those companies want to do what the existing universities already do. Universities do not want to change how they do things. They can’t eliminate lectures, for example, without eliminating the basic economic structure upon which a university is based. They cannot emphasize teaching over research when their financial stability depends on major research funding. They want to essentially copy their existing classroom courses, because they have no other choice.

Socratic Arts, on the other hand, wants to do it right. What does that mean? That means convincing faculty to re-think education in a serious way. To explain what I mean and to illustrate these differences, I’ve chosen eight arguments that faculty have against our methodology. Or, rather, that we have against theirs.

Theory before practice

In most university programs, they teach theory first and practice second. You wouldn’t teach the theory of walking to a two-year old, nor would you teach the theory of economics to someone who was opening a lemonade stand. No one sits still for theoretical discussions when they are ready to try to do something. No one except college students of course, who have no choice. Universities are wedded to theory first because they often don’t know how to actually teach practice, and because it is much easier to talk about something then to do it. But the real reason is that professors like talking and they like research and theory. It is what they do in their own lives. So that is what they teach.

Socratic Arts does it the other way around of course, that is, if we ever teach theory at all, which is often quite unnecessary.


Masters degree programs offer coverage. What does that mean? That means that the faculty have a wide range of research interests and when they sit down to design a masters program, everyone wants what they specialize in to be covered. For this reason, most masters degree programs are incoherent and unorganized. They are simply a list of courses to choose from that represent what the faculty has to teach. There is no end game. No one is thinking about what kind of person they are producing at the end of the program. No one asks what the student will be able to do when he or she is finished.

That, by the way, is the first question Socratic Arts asks when it starts to work with a university. The question is usually met with blank stares.

Replicating the classroom

Universities have classrooms and they think they should always have them because some deity must have wanted it that way. The idea that a classroom is a basically bad idea because it forces one teacher to talk and students to listen, is not discussed. Getting rid of the classroom in the era of easily findable information is sometimes thought about, but cannot actually be done without making professors do an entirely different job than they are used to doing. And professors are, in general, very conservative when it comes to changing the way they do things. More teaching responsibility is on no professor’s list of things to wish for.

Socratic Arts makes professors into mentors or coaches who help students as they need help with tasks they are interested in performing. Our idea of a teacher is much more like a normal idea of a parent -- there when you need him or her to help you figure it out for yourself.

Teachers as information deliverers

Get rid of lectures. No one remembers what they heard in a lecture a week later. They are there for ancient reasons. Most on line courses simply deliver the lecture on line and think they have done something miraculous. Nothing could be sillier. What can be conveyed by a lecture in an hour could take weeks of practice to actually learn.

There are no lectures in Socratic Arts on line programs.

Discussion of experiences, not replication of experiences

We learn by doing. Plato said that. Dewey said that. Einstein said that. Almost every educational philosopher has said that. Education means providing experiences, real or simulated, that a student can make mistakes in; try again; think about what went wrong, and try again. While this does happen in PhD programs as a matter of course, it almost never happens in masters or undergraduate programs, or even in a typical college course.

All Socratic Arts masters programs are experiential. They create experiences that lead to experiences that lead to more complex experiences. They are, for this reason, very engaging and fun. Professors know how to do this, but the very structure of a masters program tends to prevent it.

Simultaneous courses

The structure that prevents it is the idea that a student must take four or five courses simultaneously. This structure exists so that professors can only teach three hours a week and then can go back to research. It also exists because it always has existed. Why high school students have fifty minute periods for every subject is incomprehensible.

When we built our masters programs at Carnegie Mellon, we made the registrar crazy because all courses were sequential and thus no student was taking more than one course at a time, they started and stopped at odd times in the term, and grades were unavailable when the registrar wanted them. We managed by lying to the registrar. Disruption isn’t easy.

A properly constructed masters program would have students concentrating on doing something, and only when they complete what they’re doing will they start on something else that builds on the prior task. This is what I have called a Story Centered Curriculum since the entire masters program is delivered in the form of a story in which the student has many roles to play.

Use of outside experts

Why is the professor the only teacher in a course? There are many experts in the world. On line experiences allow for many experts to be recorded and have the right expert pop up at the right time to share his or her wisdom about exactly the mistake you are making or the issue about which you are curious. Really, in the age of the internet shouldn’t there be hundreds of experts available to students who are working on something? Pre-recording expert stories and delivery just in time is the sine qua non of on line education. At least it is a sine qua non of Socratic Arts’ idea of education. As far as I know, no other on line courses do this.

Deliverables not tests

In every masters programs we build, students have to produce real deliverables every week or so. They are judged on what they built, wrote, or presented, and the mentors then help them make it better. No tests. Any on line course that ends in a multiple choice test is simply a mockery that makes a sham of education. There are thousands of on line courses that end in multiple choice tests. They are useful for pretending we have convinced a bad driver to now be more careful. They don’t do that of course but authorities like to think they do. You learn nothing from studying for multiple choice tests except how to study for multiple choice tests. Real life requires real work. Students should be judged by the work they produce. Socratic Arts masters degree programs are built like that.

I am writing this diatribe for a simple reason. We now have a large amount for money available to start building masters degrees. I am seeking universities who want to work with us, but these universities need to abandon their old models in the new on line space. I would be happy to hear from people who think their university could do that. MIT and Harvard will continue to pretend they are doing something important but free courses are not free degrees and courses never really worked that well in the first place. Students don’t typically attend college because of all the great courses. Universities may like to think that but while a Harvard degree may well be worth a lot, Harvard courses are just a form of entertainment.


David said...

Your point about the theory first versus the practice first is apt. I've written about it on my blog:

You also observe that universities have schedules which are intended to match research, rather than learning, which is also very true. I've written about a suggestion on how a typical brick and mortar university could transition to a model more like what you are suggesting. See

One of the things that I think is wrong with the Udacity model is assessment. I cannot see how their system can appropriately assess people's ability to problem solve and create programs. Is there some complex mechanism for machine-grading effective code that I don't know about?

The next question is, how will this practice change k to 12 education as well?

Michael Webster said...

I have just tried to endure a MOOC on negotiation training.

A series of talking head lectures.

Could not hold my interest at all. Despite my looking forward to it with great anticipation.

Did the Socratic Arts ever get their Negotiation Training course up and running?