Disruption rolls on

Udacity’s recent announcement that it was pivoting away from free courses for all has been met by glee and relief from the anxious academic establishment. Their satisfaction, just like the hype that they deride, misses the point. MOOCs have always been a sideshow of the three-act play that is the disruption of higher education. Their inevitable retreat from the public eye that Udacity’s evolution begins does nothing to change the radical change that is coming to higher education models around the world.

The real disruption is being driven by models like College for America, which enable individuals to earn a degree at their own pace, from anywhere, using any methods. It is being driven by models like Kepler and Spire which combine online resources with the best in-person learning techniques, which have been proven through extensive research and experience but few universities meaningfully employ. And ultimately it is being driven by the fundamental flaws in current higher education models, flaws which charge young people a king’s ransom and often provide them with little meaningful learning or employable skills.

The irony of Rebecca Schuman’s polemic is that the current American higher education system is guilty of the same bias against poor people which she attributes to Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun: consider, for example, the appalling 30% graduation rate of lower income students. Yes, MOOCs are currently an intellectual playground for the global elite. But so are many colleges and universities around the world. New models will take hold more slowly than in other industries due to the greater switching costs in higher education. But they – and the disruption they herald – offer the best hope for millions of poor people around the world and should be cheered by everyone who believes in equality of education and opportunity.

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.

Full Court Press.edu

Reading David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book has gotten me thinking seriously about how underdogs succeed. Our students enter the global economy with weaker primary and secondary educations, less educated parents, limited financial cushions, and coming from countries that don’t have strong economies compared to Europe, Asia, or North America. So how do they win? Let me tell you about the full court press.

The Press

After one team scores in basketball, usually they retreat to the back of their side while the other team brings the ball down the court. In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book though (summary here) he talks about a different defensive strategy – one that has propelled most teams who’ve used it to do far better than expected. The full court press. Instead of retreating, the full court press has players ferociously defending all 94 feet of the basketball court instead of passively retreating. And it works.

So why don’t more people try it? Because it’s so freaking hard:

“I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press,” Pitino [a coach famous for his full court press] said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. “Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last.”


Pitino shook his head. “We practice every day for two hours straight,” he went on. “The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections”—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction—“they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working.” Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired.


The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.


One, Two, Three, Attitude

I think a full day of intense, active learning, with no sitting back and listening is our full court press. Regular basketball defense has you heading back to your side of the court and sitting around without moving (passively!) while the other team comes down the court. It’s harder – ask our amazing teachers and students – but it works. And the beautiful thing our ability to execute with this intensity doesn’t depend on background, wealth, or anything predetermined – just our students’ and teachers’ passion and drive.

“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.” He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?”

The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, attitude!” That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.


Never Punt

But what about burnout? Isn’t running this hard more likely to exhaust your team – is this strategy more of a sprint instead of a marathon? Maybe, but that line of reasoning ignores how fun it is to win. To push yourself to do your best.

I loved this video about the “full court press” of football – a coach who never punts, and who always onside kicks – two risky strategies that require a bit more work, but pay off with points and wins. The coach here says it loudly and clearly: “Kids love it. They absolutely love this style of football.”  It’s FUN to perform at the top of your game and shock the competition with your performance:

And that’s been our experience at Kepler so far – it’s hard work, but at our recent business pitch session, the feedback from the successful entrepreneur judges was that our students in one month of learning had outpaced many 4-year university graduates. And for our teachers and students, that feels damn good.

A Farewell to MOOCs?

There is some interesting news from Udacity, one of the big three so-called MOOC platforms. Their pivot clearly seeks to address some  of the most common – and warranted – critiques of the MOOC model to date. Their changes?

     1. Instruction – You can now get direct and personalized feedback from a coach on your work on the course;

     2. Doing, not just watching – Courses now include focus on applying skills to build things rather than just taking quizzes

     3. Business model – They pay for those first two features by charging students on a monthly basis. You take longer to complete the course you pay more – the approach taken by other emerging competency-based providers such as College for America.

These are sensible moves and signs that at least some providers are getting serious about the online course format. Feedback and real application of skills are the core of effective learning and the future of education – not simple recordings of the broken formats of the past – professorial talking heads – that has been the mainstay of MOOCs to date. It is also notable that Udacity course developers are all practitioners and leaders from relevant industries, not professors. While they can’t leverage big academic brands as others can, this is likely a net strength, providing them with focus, insulation from academics with fixed notions of course design, and a value proposition that customers are more likely to pay for (tech skills from industry leaders) than play with (humanities courses from academics).

At more than $100 per month, it would be hard to claim that Udacity will still be Massive or Open – MOOC hype is starting to deflate as sensible observers like University Ventures have predicted. But with their focus on employability, high demand technology skills, and formats that facilitate high quality learning, my money would be on Udacity surviving and thriving over Coursera and other for-profit platforms. 


The Switch

We write frequently about the confluence of factors that are driving an upheaval in higher education systems around the world: growing demand from dissatisfied families and employers, skyrocketing costs, and maturing technology, among others. But despite these forces, there is no doubt the transformation of higher education is going to be much slower and messier than disruptions in other sectors (there will be no Facebook or Google in this space). Another great blog from University Ventures sums up why in two words: switching costs. 

“Sebastian observes that Expedia was successful in getting consumers to switch away from travel agents because the switching cost was relatively low; if you make a mistake, it’s only a $500 decision.  But Zillow was not successful in its ambition of getting consumers to switch away from real estate agents; if you make a mistake here, it’s a much bigger mistake.  So switching costs are much higher.  With regard to higher education, switching away from a degree is an even bigger decision than selling your house.  Such a decision stays with you for life.  Based on current data, the average result will be 40% less income.”

Higher education is one of the costliest and most important decisions people make in their lives. They are thus understandably much more conservative about jumping on something new and unproven. This isn’t just the inertia of not wanting to switch to a new email client. This is a major decision that people think carefully about and for which many will see the risks of switching (no degree and therefore no career) far outweighing the potential benefits (better learning and employment chances at lower cost). Those two words neatly summarize why statements about the imminent end of universities and degrees is just bombast.

This doesn’t mean that people won’t switch and current institutions won’t close. They will. But as Clay Christensen has articulated the change will be driven initially by people who don’t face those switching costs: those who can’t currently access even mediocre higher education. Another potential angle for those seeking to overcome this massive switching cost hurdle is to start be offering existing consumers the benefits without the switching costs. The complementary employment preparation program that Spire is planning to run in Kenya, for example, will dramatically improve students’ skills and employment prospects while not asking them to forgo their degree from a traditional institution. If the price is right – and, for many, the loans affordable – programs like these may be the way for the radical improvement of higher education to gain a foothold in many markets. As always, watch this space…