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Thursday, July 2, 2020

When can students return to the classroom?



Why do we hear so much about this? Politicians, doctors, parents all talking about it non-stop.

Here is why:

We have built a world based on the existence of schools. Parents can go to work because the state is taking care of their children. (And there is stuff they must learn — no one ask why.) But what are we doing to kids when they are taking care of them?

1- making them anxious about grades

2- making them memorize stuff they will never need

3- creating a world where kids can bully each other

4- making them learn to sit down and shut up

5- preventing kids from following their own interests  

(none of this is the fault of teachers; this 
is the fault of he system they have to teach in)

so why do we have school? (hint - its not for the kids)

Imagine a world where we could choose what to learn and what to do. Most kids have that world when they are at home. Why not in “school” as well?

1- we can create places where kids can go that are safe
2- we can create places where kids can go where they can follow their own interests
3- we can eliminate anxiety about tests and grades

Imagine a world with happy kids.

Why can’t we do this? Because we have been doing it the other way for so long we don’t even realize there is an alternative. There is important stuff they should learn: ancient literature, the quadratic formula; SP3 bonding.

What is the alternative? 

We set up places (run by teachers who will no longer “teach”) where kids have experiences (virtual and live) that will (as it happens) teach you things.

We set up places where kids can play as much as they like (but we try and play the play valuable.)

We know how to build high quality online experiences and we know how to build safe places for kids.

(Yes, I know the Romans thought it was important to learn history, literature and philosophy.)

It has been 2000 years. Time to get over it.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Online college; Will It work? Will on the ground college survive?


Universities are deciding to go online these days. One has to ask what we lose if they do. Might students actually win?

Twenty years ago I was responsible for creating an online version of Carnegie Mellon University graduate programs which were run out of their Silicon Valley Campus. The courses we created, (100% learn by doing courses in masters degree programs in computer science) which were directed by CMU faculty in Pittsburgh, were only sometimes appreciated by the CMU faculty.

The students were initially surprised by the lack of a classroom and lectures. One of our TA’s said at the time that as a graduate student in Pittsburgh he had an easier time in the traditional courses. He could sit back in class and chat with his friends and then he could cram for tests. 


The CMU Silicon Valley students actually had to work hard and he felt sorry for them. The students stopped showing up on campus (because there was no need to) and they would meet with each other in Starbucks (because Starbucks had free internet.)

The students went from hating it during the first few weeks (because it was different from what they expected) to loving it (because they were acquiring real job skills and were getting hired by local companies.)



Students were getting jobs and enjoying the experience. Eventually CMU decided to go back to way things always and been in some (but not all) of our offerings.  Why?

“The reason academic politics are so vicious is that there is so little at stake.” Henry Kissinger

Many of the CMU faculty in Pittsburgh hated what we were doing, and some went out of their way to kill it. (But, many still use our approach to this day.) Typically, faculty want the system to stay the same. I warned CMU that my ideas would not go over well with the faculty when they hired me, and I was right.

So, while we hear every day that universities will be online next year, we need to understand what they mean by online is the closest imitation to what is there now so that faculty will not have to change anything they do or teach.

Why is that? 
Outsiders to academics think that faculty at elite research institutions are teachers. If I say I am a professor to someone, they usually ask what do you teach?

But that is a silly question. Professors at elite universities spend a very small part of their lives teaching. (It was three hours a week every other semester for me.)

So when we hear that a top university is going online, we need to think out the implications:

Students will lose out on the main reasons they went to a top college:

  1. no football
  2. no easy access to the opposite sex
  3. no parties
  4. no leaving home

We tend to assume that universities are about education but that is really just a nice story.

For university presidents, universities are about raising money, raising rankings, fame, keeping the faculty happy, and keeping students happy (in that order.)

For faculty, universities are about research, especially for the elite schools. Faculty are judged on how much money they bring in for research, how much fame they achieve, and how many papers they publish — not teaching. They hardly care about teaching. The more time spent on it, the less time for research. The choice is easy. 

So, when a university is suddenly going online, I assure you that the faculty are simply thinking about how much more time this will give them for research. (No more students knocking on your door means more time for research.)

Let’s imagine we built one really great online college. What would it look like? Professor’s lives wouldn’t change much. They would teach every now and then, and then go back to research. In this new world, teaching would really mean mentoring. A professor sets out a challenge and the TA’s respond to students who need help. No blabbering on to people who aren’t really listening, no tests. Just setting up real challenges and providing help.

There would be no need for a “location” in this model.  Zoom meetings would become the norm. Who cares where people are physically?

So why take a Harvard course when you could take a Yale course? Those names will mean less and less over time. Why can’t a Yale student take a Harvard course now? Because it is to far to travel and because Yale would have to pay money to Harvard. Also, suppose a student at Yale took more Harvard courses than Yale courses. Who would award the degree? Now suppose that Mississippi State offered a great course. Could you get a degree if you took the best online courses available? Why should they be offered by only one school? The University of Alaska decided to stop offering sociology courses recently. Of course there was an outcry. According to Google there are about 5300 colleges and universities in the U.S. Do  they all need to teach sociology?  Not in an online world.

My company has an online cyber security course. It is offered by the University of Texas, Purdue University, Rutgers University, UC Davis, Vermont Community College, and Spokane Community College. This seems a little silly and out of date. My company offers it under our now name as well, but most students worry about credentials and certification so our name doesn’t beat Texas’ or Purdue’s.

In the physical world of schools, each school needs to offer many courses. This is simply not true in the online world. Why would there ever be a university of Alaska at all except for any other reason that Alaska is far away from the rest of the U.S. and people in Alaska would be at a disadvantage if they could not afford to travel. That world is over.  

It is only a matter of time until colleges have to deal with these issues, once they are all online. And, they won’t like it.

We have over 5300 colleges in the U.S. All these colleges exist for a variety of reasons. Many of them were started by religions. There was a serious need to teach people agriculture in the U.S. as the Westward expansion began, so many land-grant colleges were started. While many of the big state schools were started as agriculture schools, today they are in competition for rankings by U.S. News and World Report which means that they worry about how their faculty are viewed with respect to research and how well their applicants did on the SAT.

Harvard and Yale are fundamentally research institutions. Faculty are measured by how much money they bring in not by how well they teach. Students for the most part don’t care about either. They care about being able to say “I went to Harvard” every chance they get. People will ooh and ah when they say that, this may likely lead to a good job, and is likely to win the approval of future in-laws. These schools were set up as a way of certifying the elite and they have succeeded very well at that.

What does this have to do with online education? Nothing. If the physics course from Harvard is the best available then everyone should get to take it and then Yale needn’t bother building one. Is this possible? Certainly. But it won’t happen overnight.

I have no problem saying that Harvard and Yale will be around in 50 years and people will still want to go there. (We do need maybe 50 research universities.) Mississippi State and University of Alaska not so much. It would be a fine alternative if the best course designers got together and built really great courses that opened new worlds to students. They could be about research, but on the whole when a student signs up for a psychology course he most likely does not want to learn how to do research. He wants to find out why he is so screwed up and how to get along better with other people. Of course they don’t teach that in psych 101. But here and there, there are professors who teach courses like that. So it will not be a  competition between name brands but between courses that open new worlds and are exciting to take, giving you real world knowledge and practice applying the knowledge that you will be able to use later in life.

Required courses? Out the window. They exist only to funnel students into research courses that faculty really want to teach so they can get students who will work for them in their field. They also exist so important faculty don’t have to teach elementary subjects. Most faculty  just want to teach their own research.

In an online world all that will go away. Take what courses you want, built by the best course designers, and delivered by the best teachers. The courses would no longer be 40 hours long. Why does it take 40 hours to learn every single thing? Can’t you learn something in 3 hours or in 300?

Certification agencies (which are one of the main problems in education) will go away. They will be replaced by recommendations about how well a course works for  students and how much employers want to hire the students who succeeded in that course.

Subjects (and departments) will disappear. Amazon offers things its data indicates that consumers will want. The Amazon of education would do the same. College would become much cheaper and kids would sign up in order to learn rather than to have a good time and get away from their parents (and in the words of a cousin of mine who asked me for advice about college) they will not get the “rah rah.”  

We can make education work for everyone by making it cheaper and offering thousands of courses. (But these “courses” would really be mentored experiences, not courses. We throw you in the water and help you to swim. No lectures on why flotation works.) They can be built by the experts once they learn to do it properly. For now, let every school go online and let the marketplace decide.

When Amazon became popular people moaned about the disappearance of book stores. Book stores were indeed nice places to hangout and a good place to meet people. But, it is much easier to find a book on Amazon, even though Amazon has yet to figure out how to properly recommend books because its algorithms do not actually understand what a book is really about. 

Bookstores have started to die. The same will be true for colleges. Yes, they are fun experiences but they will never offer all the possible options.  

It is time for an online college that offers everything to everyone.









Sunday, May 17, 2020

All colleges are going online; too bad they will produce garbage



Thursday, May 7, 2020

Please don’t try to put your course online….


I and (a large team) have been building online courses since I started the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) at Northwestern University in 1989. I started ILS because after watching my kids suffer through school and wondering why things were done that way in school, I thought (since my field was learning) maybe I could change things. But school weren’t interested in changing. Corporations were interested, so we built (and still are building) online courses for them. Occasionally we got to build course for colleges but even when we had built a great course, internal faculty politics usually killed it.

But now, due to Covid, schools are closing and we are all wondering what to do. Putting your courses on line is the obvious answer. But wait. Let me explain what to do and what not to do, following these ten admonitions:



  1. Do not attempt to copy an existing course

Why not? You teach a great course so why not attempt to copy it?

Once I was talking with another professor about why I thought lectures were not a good idea. He told me he gave great lectures. I said: suppose you go to class and there is only one student there, would you give the lecture? He hesitated and then said “no, but he would miss a great lecture.” 

Then why wouldn’t he give one student the lecture? Because in real life we don’t talk at someone we talk with them. The listener typically has a question or a different point of view, and they want to respond with what they are thinking. Conversation is how we learn. No one can learn from someone talking at them for an hour. The reason lectures exist at all is both economic and historical.  Before printing books was easy, teachers would read books to their students. (Lecture means “to read”in Latin.) Colleges can make money by stuffing 500 kids in a room with only one teacher. When the Romans decided what needed to be in the curriculum (another Latin word) they chose subjects from what they called the Liberal Arts in an effort to create intellectuals. They were not trying to prepare kids to go to work or live in the real world. They wanted to train rich kids to be Orators in the Forum. It is astonishing that we still do this (given that we don’t need Orators these days.) But the University of Bologna copied this model and all universities have followed. The high school curriculum in the U.S. was created by the President of Harvard in 1892. Harvard was still copying the Roman concept of education and Harvard wanted everyone in high school to be ready for Harvard. From Rome until today school is meant for the rich and for people who will not have to work. Why can’t we change that? Because we have always done. it that way.

So, before you attempt to put your course online you must ask if your course is useful, and the answer can’t be “it will teach you how to think” which what all academics say when they can’t answer questions about the usefulness of what they teach.   Knowing stuff and being able to repeat it is not education no matter what the Romans thought. When your child asks you a question you don’t respond with an hour lecture. Long before children first attend school they are little learning machines. They try to do stuff that interests them and when they are stuck they ask someone for help. This is how all humans learn (and animals too but without the ability to ask questions.)

So, before you try to put your course online, you must ask what the students will be able to do after they have taken your course and you must ask if they truly want to be able to do that. If a course doesn’t teach you something that you want to learn how to do, then it is just transferring inert knowledge that will soon be forgotten.


2. No tests  

Every year in my first class of a course in September I would ask the class if they could pass the final exams from the courses they took last year? They all agreed they could if they could study first. That didn’t sound crazy to them, but it did to me. Isn’t a test meant to be an assessment of what you have learned in a course? Studying is temporary memorization of stuff you haven’t already retained. We make every kid in the world memorize the quadratic formula so they can pass the test that will inevitably have a question about it. Does anyone who isn’t a mathematician need to know it? 

The problem with tests is that their entire point is to enable the teacher to assign a grade. Why do we need grades? For colleges to determine if they should admit you is the usual answer. I used to give every kid an A as long as they showed up and wrote answers to questions I gave them that were intended to start them thinking so we could discuss ideas in class. (I only did this when I got to a point where I was too important to be punished for having done this.)

Kids are so used to grades that they obsess about them. But why? Because they want to get admitted to the next school. I understand that teachers must give grades but while we have a chance to redesign courses we must get rid of them. My driver’s license doesn’t have a grade on it. You have one or you don’t. Someone watched and saw what I could do. In real life there are no grades just assessments of a capabilities based on observed performance.

So, an ideal course has to end in a proof of performance (not of the ability to temporarily memorize.)

For as long a there has been “distance learning” and “computer based training” there has been text on screen followed by a test. This was never a reasonable way to handle education. Putting it online doesn’t improve this terrible methodology.


3. Start with a goal that a student wants to be able to achieve 

When you design an online course you must begin with the end in mind.  What do you want the student to be able to do at the end? Do they want to learn to do that? Will being able to do that help them in some way? Courses often ignore a student’s real goals and replace them with artificial academic goals.

When I was at Yale I happened to sit in on a class in developmental psychology. It was all women. When I inquired about this the professor told me that these women all expected to be mothers some day and wanted to learn about how to raise a child. Except that is not what they they were teaching in that course. Child raising is not an academic subject, so instead they taught theories about child development. They didn’t care why the students were there.

Many years later my team built a course in how to raise a child  (with the help of the developmental psychology faculty at Columbia University.) The student dealt with videos of problem children and taught how to deal with them. Students loved it. But no school would use it. Too practical; no theory.

In order to fix online education we need to fix education. Faculty always seem to want to teach theory and rarely want to teach practice.  This has to change. Teachers are rarely practitioners. This has to change as well.

4. Encourage the expression of ideas

Small children always have questions, and ideas and stuff they want to say. Then they go to school and are told to sit down and shut up or they are diagnosed with ADHD because they don’t follow orders. School has always been about paying attention.  In the movie “Horsefeathers” Groucho Marx plays the role of a college president. When he is told about a problem arising from too few dormitories he responds by saying that students can sleep in the classrooms like they always do.

We all know all know that students are not paying attention, but we don’t care because they have to pass the test and will study. Classrooms tend to inhibit the expression of ideas. But, good online education does the opposite. We believe in having “cohorts” of students in our online courses. There may be 50 students in a course but there are just 5 that you hang out with. Talk to them and when you are confused you can talk to the teacher (who is more of a mentor than a teacher) and ask for help. A good mentor does not tell you “the answer” but encourages you to find it for yourself. Say your ideas, defend them, find a way to convince others that you are right. This is how a good online course must go. In general, there are no right answers.


5.  Teachers are behind the scenes

When we hear the word teacher we immediately think about someone standing in front of a classroom talking at us. But your best teachers were more than likely your parents who never did that. Natural teaching occurs when one has an idea follows their intuitions and nothing goes as planned. You look for  someone to ask for help. Providing this help is a teacher’s real job. Most teachers actually know this but the system puts them in a room with 50 kids so they can’t teach in response to a student’s need. They have a curriculum to follow and content to cover. The notion that the teacher is a deliverer of content is simply wrong. Textbooks can do that (badly).

A good online course employs mentors not teachers. A mentor is someone who is only there when you need them.

6. Build in failure

If you don’t fail you don’t learn. All good online courses set up the student for failure. Course need to have situations in which a student’s job is to figure out a real problem. “We’ve been hacked. Figure out what happened.” “Our business is running out of money, figure to why.” The engine isn’t running. Why?” “The patient is dying, help him.” 

Set up a problem the students will find interesting and make the student try to figure out a solution, not to a math problem, but to a real life problem. Provide help as warranted.

That is all there is to online education.

Why don’t we do that in classroom? Because each student would have their own ideas, different solutions, and need different kinds of help. School demands that every child be on the same page at the same time, an idea so stupid it is hard to believe we do that.

7. Make it emotional

Humans are emotional and people oriented. Why do many students (girls more than boys) because it is barren of feelings and emotional substance. History is more interesting when it is about real people rather battles and ideology. 

We built a course that taught doctors how to tell patients that they have cancer. We employed videos that were heart wrenching (just good actors actually) and they were hard to forget because they made students feel something. 

We built a history course that relied on real people telling stories about decisions that were made in similar situations and how they worked out. Some of these stories were hard to forget. After the first Gulf War we asked an advisor to the first George Bush why they decided not to kill Saddam Hussein. He said “do know what would happen if we killed Saddam?” He then laid it in detail the events that followed 10 years later when we did kill Saddam. I remember his final words “it would be a bloodbath.”

I have that video on my laptop and often show it when I am talking to the US government about building online courses. It always has a tremendous impact.


8. Use just in time stories 

We collect stories (usually about 1.5 minutes long) from experts, the kind of stories people tell when they are in a conversation. We learn a great deal from stories people tell when we can relate to them. So, the first thing we do when we build an online course is collect stories from experts. We engage them in conversation (with the camera showing only the interviewee) and in the end we have hundreds of stories that we can use just in time as appropriate in the course. We learn a great deal when we do these interviews. We learn about the domain and we learn about the people in the domain. The course should provide that same entree into a domain. Talk with enough doctors and you begin to understand how they think, what they know, and what they don’t know.

You want an online courses to be full of experts ready to jump in as needed.

9. Students must have other people to talk to


Most online course are lonely experiences. One person staring at a screen. If the online course really is a copy of a classroom there may well be other people around  but not ones you can easily talk with. People like to talk to other people. In our online courses students talk to each other all the time. They can figure things out together. The mentor can meet one on one but also schedules regular sessions with a small group. Online courses must include regular interactions that are both enjoyable and interesting or they are hard to endure.


10. Make it fun

Learning something new is enjoyable. We revel in acquiring new skills. We like to show off what new things we can do. It is fun. I do not mean that learning is a game where one laughs a lot. People enjoy learning new skills that they wanted to learn. No one ever learned how to drive a car who wasn’t excited to show off  their new ability and go for a drive.

The Coronavirus Pandemic has offered a solution to education that have plagued our world for many years.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” 
John Dewey

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” 
Benjamin Franklin

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient …
J.S. Mill


Good online learning changes all that. We can fix it now. Start Designing.