About Dai Ellis

Passionate ed reformer, Generation Rwanda co-founder, recovering infectious disease drug-slinger, rookie father. @DaiEllis on Twitter

Weekly roundup

Plenty of interesting stuff stored up from the last few weeks!

The MOOC backlash is in full swing now, as many of you will have seen. So far, not finding the backlash a lot more thoughtful than the initial hype. Sigh . . . It’s not about MOOCs-awesome or MOOCs-suck; it’s about how education orgs can use MOOCs as one small part of a thoroughly reinvented model that includes in-person elements and produces much better outcomes. Recent Clay Christensen piece made this point

1) Blogged this yesterday, but just to flag in case anyone missed it — Jamie wrote a spot-on piece in Slate yesterday, trying to find some middle ground between the MOOC hypers and haters

2) Jamie’s piece was partly in response to an Anya Kamenetz article in Slate, which was thought-provoking in highlighting the potential downsides of using MOOCs aggressively in the developing world. We found it a bit overstated and not reflective of our experience with Kepler so far, in the ways Jamie highlighted in his piece.

3) Meanwhile, Anya wrote an excellent piece in the NYT — showing why she’s one of the hottest journalists in the higher ed space right now — on competency-based education. In the long run, we continue to feel that this trend will be much more far-reaching than the MOOC one.

4) Loved this spotlight on Champlain College in Vermont by James Fallows in The Atlantic (Atlantic continues to impress on education coverage!). So much in common with our vision. Can’t wait to get up there to check it out. What a shame it’s capped at 2K student enrollment. Wonder if the cap makes them more open to partnership to expand their impact?

5) Fast Company article on the major pivot Udacity is undertaking. Seems like a step in the right direction strategically for Udacity as a business, though the piece is much too fawning (explicitly and implicitly) about Thrun. But the piece misses the point about how MOOCs can create value and how to interpret completion rates, as just about every other observer does.

6) Audrey Watters with a MOOC-backlash-representative piece on Udacity’s pivot and all the attention Thrun gets. Critiquing Thrun-as-saint is totally fair — no way he should be the figurehead for improving higher ed, and he’s said some pretty daft things. But turning that into across-the-board MOOC-hating isn’t much more thoughtful than what Thrun has said. The whole idea that we need to keep MOOCs at bay because they’re bad pedagogy? Um, yeah — two problems: 1) MOOCs can/should be used to take lecture out of the classroom and enable smart pedagogy during class time, as Kepler is attempting; and 2) bad pedagogy has already taken root across most of our college campuses, well before MOOCs came to town! As Jamie says in his Slate piece, the danger is the status quo, not MOOCs howling outside the gates.

7) Paul LeBlanc of SNHU with a very thoughtful piece on tech-enabled education and the human heart. Made me think back to the Gawande piece on how there’s no substitute for door-to-door, in-person engagement when rolling out new health technologies and behavior change campaigns.

8) Anyone else doing — or interested in — entrepreneurship in education service delivery or ed tech should have a look at this Diane Tavenner talk at a Lean Startup conference last year. Diane founded Summit schools which is doing some fascinating & pioneering work in blended learning.

9) Giants feeling pain: in the higher ed world, Yale feeling the crunch, and in the K12 blended learning world, Rocketship making some major changes even as it shoots for the stars with scale.

10) Our friends at Bridge International Academies got some nice coverage in Wired this week

11) Mindfulness and meditation taking off in the business world. If mindfulness practices are as potentially personally transformative as its practitioners feel they are, how could we incorporate into education in a secular way without setting off Wavy-Gravy alarm bells?

12) Interesting piece in Getting Smart about how higher ed institutions might become ‘lifelong learning partners’ and really unleash the power of their alumni network and connections. Want to circle back and blog on this. Big part of what we’re envisioning.

13) Coursera creating some global learning hubs to create ways for learners around the world to get some in-person support and facilitated access. Makes sense, consistent with Kepler vision though thinner model in many cases; curious to learn more about some of these

14) Kepler also got a mention in a recent BBC piece

Kepler in Slate

Our own Jamie Hodari just wrote a great piece in Slate responding in part to an earlier, thought-provoking piece by Anya Kamenetz.

Some money quotes:

  • The greatest threat to national education systems is not online courses or other innovations. It’s the status quo.
  • No one cries afoul when a Nigerian professor uses an economics textbook written by a professor from Berkeley.
  • And many of the experiments happening in Africa will be just as relevant for helping the United States work through its own higher education crisis. In fact, the best experiments in places like Kigali may eventually be featured at your alma mater a decade from now.

Seeking a rockstar Kepler CEO

Kepler just launched its search for a Chief Executive Officer! We’re looking for a bold and innovative leader who has run a high-performing organization and is passionate about the opportunity to shape and deliver on Kepler’s ambitious vision.

A full job description can be found at:  http://www.on-ramps.com/jobs/891

This job doesn’t always drink beer, but when it does . . .

Please help us spread the word!

Weekly Roundup

Much more interesting week this week than last!

1) Interesting piece in Scientific American about the increasing evidence base and new techniques for what many educators and students have known for a long time — that it’s possible to enhance cognitive ability (and specifically our ability to learn, or ‘fluid intelligence’). The tone of the article is a bit ridiculous, as if the author were proving the whole world wrong. But interesting nuggets — eg, hadn’t come across the Robert Sternberg stuff yet, which is worth checking out. Main thesis of the article:

1. Fluid intelligence is trainable.

2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent—meaning, the more you train, the more you gain.

3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.

4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don’t resemble the test questions.

2. The results from the OECD’s inaugural — and crazy-large — Survey of Adult Skills are in. Best write-ups I’ve see are this one by Eduardo Porter in the NYT and another in the New Yorker with some striking charts about how the US is falling behind virtually all OECD countries in its ability to produce highly-skilled workers. Both are US-centric.

3. Here’s a course I’d love to see MOOC’d and I’ll be among the first to enroll — an Ancient Chinese Philosophy class that’s one of the top five most popular undergrad courses at Harvard. One example student take on it: “the class absolutely changed my perspective of myself, my peers, and of the way I view the world.” And another excerpt: “’We are what we repeatedly do,’ a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person.” E.g., if you smile and make real eye contact with everyone you interact with, including the convenience store clerk, you’re more likely to be or become kind and generous. During my time at Excel, a high-performing charter school network, I saw how important reinforcing and routinizing the smallest positive/respectful behaviors was to building character.

4) Want to go start a college from scratch? Learn from Patrick Awuah (one of our advisors at Spire) who started Ashesi, the best liberal arts college in Ghana. The story about how the regulatory authorities rejected Ashesi’s proposed honor code — and how the whole Ashesi community rallied behind it and decided to put their accreditation on the line by insisting to the regulator that they be allowed to keep it — is inspiring.

5) Harvard starting to roll out more limited-enrollment MOOCs. Er, “SPOCs”: small, private online courses. When a 500-student class started to qualify as small I couldn’t say . . .

6) Significant new study out on the effectiveness of direct, unconditional cash transfers (“UCTs”) to the poor — a la Give Directly, which is run by our friend (and an early Kepler/Spire contributor) Joy Sun. Economist thinks UCTs are good but that conditional cash transfers (“CCTs”) with strings attached — eg, tied to kids attending school — are generally a better instrument, especially for governments. Haven’t yet looked closely enough at the evidence to weigh in, but I’d back anything Joy’s leading.

7) Looks like Ted Mitchell is going to be taking over Martha Kanter’s role as U.S. Dept of Ed Under Secretary responsible for higher education. I don’t know Ted personally but have heard great things and judging by the caliber of the rest of the leadership team at New Schools, this seems like good news. It’ll be nice to have someone driving higher ed policy who has spent many years thinking about how the system screws kids from low-income families.

8) One of the more fascinating ed tech seed rounds of the year — Zuckerberg, Google Ventures and others backing Panorama Ed which was founded by a few Yale undergrads and is based in Boston.

9) Tom Friedman on what makes Shanghai schools (at least the ones he visited) successful. He says there’s no real secret ingredient — just good old-fashioned execution and particular investment in teacher development. News flash: this is at the center of any school’s success anywhere in the world.

10) Controversy over the slow ramp the $10K college degree programs have shown in the early going

11) World Bank getting into the MOOC platform game. As much as I love Jim Kim, if the key to good education is good execution, I wouldn’t put my money on the Bank

12) Enjoyed this piece on paying it forward by covering the cost of the Happy Meal of the people behind you in the Drive-Thru lane. I’m totally doing that next time I go get my daughter McNuggets, but don’t try to tail me — I’ll give you the slip.

Kepler in action!

Kepler students have been working in teams on business ideas to improve Kepler over the last three weeks. Big shout-out to the Kepler team for coming up with this idea — I love the cultural message this sends, similar to the spirit in which Olin College drew its first-year students into co-creation as “Olin Partners.”

The students’ work culminated in an event on Wednesday where one student from each team gave a panel of four judges the team’s “Rocket pitch.” Then each team fielded questions from the judges about how they’d think about expanding their market, paying back investors, funding their operating costs, etc.

Here are some great pix from Wednesday’s event


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Hiring for Growth Mindset

At Spire and Kepler, growth mindset is right at the core of the special sauce we want to cook up. By growth mindset, I mean what Carol Dweck has written about so compellingly — a belief that our mind is a muscle that can be developed, that our talent for something is malleable rather than fixed. People with strong growth mindset are hungry for feedback and coaching to improve themselves. We want to select for that hunger, cultivate it, and feed it. It will be core to our organizational culture and DNA if we do things right.

We believe, as Dweck does, that growth mindset itself can be developed. After all, it would be weird to be a proponent of growth mindset and then to see growth mindset itself as something that you’re either born with or you’re not. But having the beginnings of it certainly helps. So we’ll be looking for it in the students we recruit and, even more so, in the staff we hire.

But how do you actually hire for growth mindset? One of my favorite blog posts ever addresses this squarely with a simple but deceptively powerful approach. It’s written by a guy named Ben Marcovitz who runs Sci Academy, a great charter school down in New Orleans. He emphasizes to candidates how they’ll love Sci Academy if they thrive on frank, constant feedback, but burn out quickly if they’re threatened or depressed by it.

The key insight, though, is one ingredient in the hiring process: incorporate a feedback cycle. Have candidates do the same task twice with one round of concrete feedback in between. And rather than evaluate based on the absolute quality of the performance on whatever the task is, look for relative performance — on the specific aspects that you gave the candidate feedback on.

Ben does this by having teachers film a video lesson, giving them feedback on it, and then having them re-do it. But the beauty of this approach is that it’s very task-agnostic and could be used in almost any industry.

Have you seen any creative applications of this kind of approach or anything else that might be a good way to select for growth mindset?