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Letter from the Editor: Lessons of the Edupunks

Like many teenagers, my son spends a ton of time on his computer. His passion is designing icons to personalize a desktop or iPhone interface. He posts sets of these icons online for people to download. He doesn't get paid for any of this. But he loves doing it.

I sometimes reprimand him for devoting so many hours to this: "Have you finished your Spanish homework?" Yet I also find myself wondering, What's actually the better training for his future, high-school Spanish or honing these self-taught computer skills?

Parents tend to be conservative. We want our kids to follow the routines we did, even if they are out of date. Educational institutions tend to follow this pattern too. After all, they serve these parents as customers.

But what if there's a better way? That's the prospect we raise in "Who Needs Harvard?". If you were starting a system of higher education from scratch today, would you still choose a campus-based model that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree? Or might the efficiency of the Web inspire a model in which classes would be remotely delivered via Web streaming, discussion groups conducted over Facebook, and testing handled electronically? This is already happening, as staff writer Anya Kamenetz reports, courtesy of a rising movement of tech-savvy "edupunks." MIT, for instance, already posts online — for free — the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and selected video and audio for every one of its classes. "Why is it that my kid can't take robotics at Carnegie Mellon, linear algebra at MIT, law at Stanford?" asks David Wiley of Brigham Young University. "And why can't we put 130 of those together and make it a degree?"

Let's take this a step further. American business leaders, particularly in the tech sector, lament regularly that our education system isn't producing enough qualified engineers for our future. Why don't they recruit the best talent straight out of high school and train this next generation themselves? If the NBA can find Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, why can't Intel or Microsoft find what it needs? I've raised this notion with executives and seen little enthusiasm. It turns out that, in this area, they're conservative too.

These are controversial ideas, and there are many more complications than my simplistic telling represents. But moving beyond the model of the 1950s — that an expensive (and elite) four-year tour on a leafy campus is the primary route to success — is a discussion we need to embrace, especially as President Barack Obama pledges more money for education reform. Market forces have had zero impact on the cost of quality academic training; holding onto the past could cripple our future.

Now here's the confession: I'm just as trapped by this model — and committed to it — as any tenured professor or university president. My son has already visited a couple of traditional four-year colleges, and we've got money stashed in a 529 account to help pay for one. Someone has to be progressive and pioneer a new way. But I'm not going to take that risk with my son's future. If he gets into Harvard — or some other college — I'll spend the money to send him. What kind of hypocrite does that make me?

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  • Mouli Cohen

    A lot of it also has to do with the relationships built in college. I know many people that are not the greatest at what they do but rely very well on the networks that they created while in school.

  • Samuel Campbell II

    First let me say that I have asked these same questions since I was in high school but never got any answers cause doing something other than what the status quo said was acceptable was not tolerated. So I slept through or skipped as many classes as possible and only did enough to pass. Mainly because I was bored. I took Eng 101 3 times because the first two teachers were pissed that I didn't do any classwork because I already knew how to write a great essay. So I passed the exit essay but failed the class. If it wasn't obvious, I have enough credits to almost have 2 degrees but the model couldn't sustain me. And I know that the conservative side of all of us are probably saying, "if you only just stuck with it". The reality is that not only are the model broken but the curriculum for any degree are bogus too. One of the mountains that stopped me from getting a communication degree was the Foreign language requirement. Nice teachers but not effective. (Would have loved to have had the new Rosetta Stone based classes)But since I left that program, I have tele-communicated with workers in Argentina, India, and China and whenever we have an issue we google a translation and keep on talking. I project managed numerous websites without a foreign language class. But I am without a degree too. I look forward to the model discussed in the article and will probably achieve my goal of being a "universal man" with the best possible education in every discipline that interests me. And who knows, maybe like the ethos of the university concept, I can pool that knowledge together and write a doctoral dissertation and get a specialized PhD from all my studies!!??

    @Nicholas Hall There is a definite social impact that will come from jumping totally into a virtual model. But I think a hybrid would work just fine. The universities could benefit from distance educators that don't require full time salaries, paired down plant operations, etc... Plus its not like online education is free. It comes at a premium. But they could refit their campuses as Educational Hubs where people come together, pay rent for an away from home place. For a reasonable fee these places now offer seminars, discussions, and debates, with the focus on cross-pollination of info. All with the benefit of the highest speed wifi available. And an organized 24hr library (A group internet search mavens–think Apple Gurus, who help you find that elusive bit of info). Kind of like a learning-palooza or an education commune. People now flock to these vacation like destinations for enhanced learning and social interaction. Can someone say edu-(va)-cation! What a notion...learning as a break from the boredom of life!

  • Michael Pratt

    @ Nicholas Hall

    I think that you have a good point, but I also think the corporation that does start recruiting out of high school will be a very edgy leader (maybe Apple?) and will end up seeing great long term results. Whoever starts it will create a whole new way of looking at schooling.

    @ Everyone

    Not just college needs to change, the environment is outdated and boring in every aspect of school. I know a lot of really smart kids who got caught up in drugs or worse, out of boredom.
    It doesn't apply today anymore. Stop beating a dead horse. Use the stimulus money to do some rational rethinking. I read an article, possibly one from this magazine, where they were talking about big companies sponsoring whole schools. With some basic regulation, this could be a really good thing. Helps the community, good PR and a new and modern learning environment.

  • Nicholas Hall

    I think that we're missing part of the bigger picture with this - aka. What is the social impact of college and potentially moving away from home. This is as much a social formative excursion as educational/academic. Being able to sculpt educational programs to the individual is a great idea, but to start from high school may be jumping the gun - this seems like a great opportunity for a corollary program to existing collegiate educations, providing coursework in excess of the traditional university program, with a credit allowance from the participating schools.

    I think this is a great idea, but the implementation obviously needs a less extreme approach.

    @nicknyc10k - twitter

  • Michael Pratt

    @ Neil Crofts

    That is a great idea. Allowing companies to watch the growth of students to do their recruiting, or "mentoring", can be a good or bad thing, depending on how well they are allowed to get their hooks in, taking away freedom to choose where they want to go after college. But definitely on the right path IMO

  • Holly Archer

    Great article! reformation of the education system is very much what this country needs, I'm at least 5 years away from having children, and I'm still thinking about where they will go to school.

    Even though the public school systems of today are obselete, there is
    still something to be said for rote memorization, though. I'm talking particularly when it comes to mathematics. without the memorization of multiplication tables, squares, and simple additions, math becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

  • Neil Crofts

    I am working on a project to do exactly this at a more junior level. The idea is to use matchmaking software to help kids find ideal mentors from a suitably trained and vetted pool.

    The mentors help the kids work on projects that they are passionate about (such as software) and the kids publish their projects on the web site. Over time the kids create a portfolio of projects that they can ultimately show to prospective employers.

    Oh and companies can sponsor projects related to what they do - so Microsoft could sponsor software projects - helping them find the right engineers of the future.

  • Douglas Wolf

    I have to add one more comment. Higher education in the US is the single biggest ripoff that exists. The ivory tower types prey upon middle class fears of their kids not getting the "good life" if they fail to pay the outrageous fees. There is surplus of qualified Phd's-supply-but education is only 2nd to medical care in relentlessly inflating its prices. Why? Because every year the Congress increases educational subsidies and the schools raise prices in lockstep creating no net increase.

  • Douglas Wolf

    The reason businesses do not want to participate is the NFL model. The pro football league does not spend a dime training its future performers and neither will big biz. Not only does the college system do the training it does the filtering for them. Too, the market allows a student to choose a company and why should a biz pay for training if no student applies to their team?

  • Aaron Cole

    @Robert Safian
    Don't worry, it'll probably be me that does it. I have a son who's a toddler now and his mom and I have already had this conversation. Strictly speaking in US terms our edu system is broken, perhaps beyond repair. Teachers are stuck not in the 50's, their stuck in the 1800's. We've have totally failed at teaching kids how to use technology to find the answers their looking for. Route memorization is no longer relative not even useful at this point. And don't even get me started on text books. Many of which are probably still in use some thirty years after I've used them, It's absurd. Although I don't have a study to back it up, my experience in the work force is that home schooled students were better educated than public school students. The only thing I noticed was that home schooled students lacked some of the socialization skills present in public school students.

    Do the teachers deserve the blame, not totally. After all how can they teach something they no nothing about and probably fear? Technology had turned everything on its ear, edu is no different. Yet, US edu needs to get over it and start using technology as a resource of free information. It's the only way we'll catch up to the rest of the developed world.

    ...As for the Spanish class when my kid gets his first "Android" phone, it'll probably translate every language know to humans as well as translate every written language via the on board camera. Just say'n.