Reflections on the annual Gates letter

About a month ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Their big bet this year: the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than any other time in history.

They sketch out five breakthroughs that could power this kind of rapid development—and it’s not only advances health and agriculture, but innovations like technology-assisted learning that will create opportunity across the world, and most profoundly in Africa.

A year and a half ago, the Kepler team made a similar bet. We realized that with the emergence of free online courses, competency-based education, and increasingly reliable broadband in Africa, there was an enormous opportunity to provide quality higher education at a much lower cost than traditional universities. If we were successful, this could offer a transformative experience that talented students from any economic background could afford.

Our approach is simple: pair world-class online content from leading universities with intensive in-person seminars led by a team of local teachers. And to ensure that our students receive the professional skills and international credentialing that they’ll need for employment, we partnered with Southern New Hampshire University’s innovative College for America program. So instead of the passive lecture and test model, our students would engage in hands-on, competency-based projects that are designed to help them master the industry identified skills they’ll need in Africa’s emerging knowledge economy.

Now, Kepler, our experimental campus in Kigali, Rwanda has enrolled nearly 150 students, almost all of whom came from difficult backgrounds and never could have afforded traditional higher education. Despite their unmistakable talent, without access to a program like this, their future would likely be limited to either subsistence agriculture or small commerce. And now, the educational experience they’re helping to create at Kepler is in some ways more advanced than what most students experience in traditional Western universities: a pragmatic, skills-based curriculum that’s tailored to what employers want in Rwanda’s competitive job market.

Most surprisingly, after only a year at Kepler, over 20% of our students had already received their AA degrees from Southern New Hampshire University and started working on their BA curriculum. And all the other students are on pace to finish their degrees on time. These statistics stand in stark comparison to the low graduation rates of American community colleges and universities.

Kepler’s approach would not have been possible even three years ago. MOOCs, competency-based education, reliable bandwidth in Rwanda—all of these innovations are only beginning to emerge. But from our experience, Bill and Melinda Gates have it exactly right: the combination of innovative software, dedicated teachers, and a career-focused curriculum is a combination that is poised to radically transform learning around the world, raising millions of talented African students out of poverty and creating a new global economic powerhouse.

For more detail on this, there’s a good piece over at The Verge that discusses how Kepler and other organizations are leveraging MOOCs and other recent innovation to improve education in the developing world.


Chris Hedrick is the CEO of Kepler, based in Kigali Rwanda. Follow him on Twitter here.

TPS Reports Vol 3 – the news on education and employment

News is flying quicker than usual here in E2E land, where all the job seekers are above average . . . 9-piece Nuggets below

Anyone got any interesting stories from your work recently?
If you know anyone else who might be interested in these updates, have them add their email here
And for Sunday fun, master class on job interviews from Will Ferrell
  • WSJ with interesting piece on why it’s so hard to fill sales jobs. Looking back, I wish I’d done a sales job early in my career! What a great early experience to have in so many ways
  • Lots of coverage of Coursera’s move in the Udacity / nanodegree direction with university-branded “Specializations” that bake in employer-branded “Capstone Projects” — piggybacking on university and employer brands simultaneously
  • New angle on the case that a bachelor’s degree does pay off despite all the hyped debate about that — bachelor’s holders get much more lifelong learning investment from employers (and the full report here showing that employers spend roughly $600B annually on training, more than all universities/colleges combined
  • Outside of SNHU & College for America, one of the most interesting university initiatives to watch is what the University of Texas system is doing with UTx. In the context of other innovation in the Texas system — like the $10K degree push and the college completion work at UT-Austin — the next-gen platform that UTx is building (sneak peek here) could help turn Texas into the leader in rethinking higher ed.
  • On the next-gen HR side, I’m really curious to see where Dunwello goes. Founded by a successful serial entrepreneur here in Boston — idea is to get people reviewing other individual professionals. Early days but seems like trying to Yelp-ize the way professional references happen in the internet age. I’m surprised LinkedIn hasn’t done a better job of figuring this out yet. One of the things I’ve always scratched my head about in traditional hiring is how we rely more on thin-slice impressions the hiring company gets through direct interviewing than on thick-slice impressions from people who’ve worked with the candidate for years.
  • Piece reviewing how we’re starting to ditch the baggage-heavy “vocational” in favor of “CTE” – and making CTE consistent with higher ed, middle class, and middle skills / more cognitively demanding work
  • Washington Post on how colleges can improve employment outcomes

E2E Newsification

Below’s the news from E2E land — where the universities have their head in the sand, employers are starting to wake up, and all the job seekers are above average.
If you have any colleagues or friends who you think would want to be copied, have them add their email address here.
Quick story I thought I’d share, some of you have heard . . . last year (2013-14) I was a Year Up mentor for a 19 yr old guy named Stephane who’d recently immigrated from Cameroon, dropped out of community college in Boston, and was working as a waiter. In Feb 2014 he got an internship with a pharma company doing basic admin of their Salesforce database. Taught himself Salesforce, got a basic Salesforce certification, and after his 5-month internship ended he got headhunted and landed a $60K job doing admin with a company in DC. Fast fwd 6 months. Stephane texted me the other day to say he’s now getting headhunted by Fannie Mae to do Salesforce for $100K+ annually. Doesn’t have his Associate degree yet, and has 11 months of white collar work experience. So maybe there is something to this whole skills gap thing.
Please keep sharing interesting stuff you see, anecdotes, and feedback — community project here!


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Education-to-employment newsletter

In the couple years since we started to work on the educationt-to-employment challenge, we’ve struggled to find any reliable news aggregators on this theme that help us keep up with the latest innovation. So I’m starting to store up interesting stuff I come across and will send it out via newsletter (and cross-posting on this blog when I can) once or twice a month.

See below for the first crop of stuff. Eager for feedback on what to change about this to make it more useful!

If you or anyone you know wants to receive these updates by email, fill out the super-quick signup form here.

Besides E2E other newsletter themes will be lifelong learning and next-generation hiring/HR practices. We’ll continue posting our own thoughts about these and other themes on this blog, separate from the newsletter.

Happy new year everyone!! Here’s to getting a ton of deserving, hungry, growth-mindsetty young folks into great jobs in 2015.

and some good pieces about the home team:


After 900 years, it’s time to stop the experiment

Lloyd Armstrong’s fantastic blog pointed me to a new study out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”. The article is a meta analysis of 225 studies of academic performance across lecture-based and active learning courses. The results are decisive:

Students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.

This isn’t the first study to come to these conclusions (the PNAS study sites a number of other similar results), but it is the largest so far. And the authors’ discussion of the results is perhaps more damning – after looking at the magnitude of the effect across the sample size they conclude:

If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discounted because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.

In other words, if active learning was a new drug being tested on patients – like early trials of antibiotics for example – it would be unethical to continue the alternative treatment because of how dramatically inferior the results are. With the significant difference that this experiment has been going on for 900 years, since the development of the first lecture-based university courses in the UK.

At Kepler and Spire, we’ve been building new models of higher education that reflect our beliefs that letting these students fail through a reliance on outdated pedagogy is unethical. We’re redesigning the classroom experience to dramatically reduce the time and money spent on lectures:

  • We use technology, leveraging content from edX, Coursera, and other exceptional providers to run a flipped classroom – where students watch lectures for free online at night so we can use class time for active learning;
  • With the money we save by shifting lectures from expensive professors to free online resources, we are able to invest in many more coaches and facilitators to reduce student:teacher ratios and enable small group problem solving and discussion sections;
  • Rather than constructing huge and expensive lecture halls and campuses that force a passive learning approach, we’re designing our classrooms to look more like office space to facilitate active learning with small teams working together to solve problems;
  • Finally, through tight partnerships with employers, we are able to expose students to work-based learning from day one, further reducing costs for students and driving even better outcomes in terms of academic quality and employment rates.

We’re working hard to prove out our model and demonstrate through our results that traditional lecture-based models for higher education are not only unethical from a quality perspective, but are often more expensive due to expensive staff, huge infrastructure requirements, and much higher rates of failure and repetition. Thanks for following along with us as we learn.

You have betrayed us

If you work in education or international development – or are simply interested in either – you should read Lant Pritchett’s new book, “The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning.” Pritchett makes a powerful, well-supported case that the focus of most education systems across the developing world on increasing enrollment is failing students and their families. More young people are sitting in schools, but they are learning little, if anything. 

Perhaps the most powerful segment of the book appears in the introduction. Pritchett relates an exchange he witnessed in Uttar Pradesh, India that should evoke deep horror and a burning sense of urgency for anyone even tangentially related to education systems serving the poor. The learning outcomes of a rural school had been captured for the first time and the nonprofit leading the work had convened a community meeting to discuss with the results. An older man stood up and addressed the principal of the school: “You have betrayed us. I have worked like a brute my whole life because, without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told me that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different from mine. For five years I have kept him from the fields and work and sent him to your school. Only now I find out he is thirteen years old and doesn’t know anything. His life won’t be different. He will labor like a brute, just like me.” 

He may have been looking at the principal, but his words were as much addressed to tens of thousands of others standing invisibly behind him, policymakers, donors, teachers, and NGO workers, among many others. Any individual, organization, or system that is not pushing feverishly for better learning outcomes every day is complicit in this crushing betrayal of the greatest hope of poor families around the world. 

There are many reasons why learning is not a greater focus. Outcomes are difficult to measure. Leadership is poor. Money is scarce and materials limited. They are all excuses. Those of us working in this field should be significantly increasing learning for the greatest number of young people as possible. If we can’t, we should be held accountable, explaining ourselves to that man in India and the many others like him.

Leading Kepler: Straddling the Lines Between Hopes for the Future and Contending with the Past


As we continue to plod forth focusing on the students’ futures, here’s (amongst many other things) what we’re dealing with from their educational pasts, which are present both in Rwanda and in most students across the globe:
  • As in many classrooms in the world, students are often required to copy notes and memorize them to “learn” content. Teachers often tell them what to do, when its due, and have small, individual incremented assignments for students.
  • Generally, students have used limited technology in their learning—even in countries where it’s available, the cost, teacher training, and just change itself can impede the use of technology.
  • While group learning has become more common, most students will arrive at their post-secondary institution having completed far more individualized assignments rather than work with others for desired outcomes.
  • Students also get used to set dates and concrete assignments that are submitted and often never looked at again. They’ve never (or rarely) had to complete a task where there may be unclear or missing pieces of data sets, nor do they get a returned assignment requiring refinement to meet a high standard. Generally, schools are places that remove ambiguity through their rigid structures and often-fictitious problem sets that don’t mirror what our students will actually have to face in work.
Schools are hierarchical, and students take their roles in the classrooms, as do teachers and the principal. In my last ten years as both a K-12 and university educator, I found many schools to adhere to hierarchies that often don’t let students exercise real leadership, stymie teacher innovation, and ensure that each student appropriately takes his or her place in the educational hierarchy (and doesn’t challenge the teacher, administration, or institution). As a result, there are only a few students that graduate with the skills to lead through influence—perhaps those that played on a sports team or had a role within a club. But for most students, the educational system’s curriculum has our students learning how to function within a hierarchy that lacks fluidity. The reality of today’s workplace doesn’t mirror strict hierarchy—multiple projects sometimes require leadership, sometimes to be an active team player. More importantly, leadership no longer works well simply through title. Leaders need to know how to use influence to get the most out of a team. Most students will leave school and enter the workplace without having the chance to develop this skill. Instead, the few lucky who either participated in an activity to develop authentic leadership or are “naturally charismatic” will be competitive in the job market.
In educational institutions all across the world, students are required answer questions—in class, on exams, in projects, in essays. We rarely, however, ask them to think critically by asking questions before arriving at a solution. Reflecting of my own education, I can recall few experiences or assessments asking me to process HOW to think about a problem rather than to simply find a solution. Thinking through the different angles from which to solve problems are key steps in the critical thinking aptitude that employers resoundingly report are missing from today’s university grads.
So what to do about all of this? While of course there are exceptions, generally at the university level, educators are faced with a group of students that have been conditioned in individual, route learning, with little practice in critical thinking, working in groups, leading by influence, and most have used technology much more out of the classroom rather than as a learning tool.
It is easy to gripe about these shortcomings from a desk, in a discussion with colleagues, or to write a fancy model that will beautifully address the gaps that today’s university students arrive with on the first day of class. It is another, however, to go through the daily grind of reversing these factors of educational conditioning through curriculum design, delivery of instruction, curriculum modification, analyzing student data, and carefully examining student outcomes, which is what we’re doing to the best of our ability at Kepler.
We’re seeing great improvements in our students. But, we’ve already had to revamp schedules, reconsider how we cover content in lessons, and re-think our overall scope and sequence to address these concerns. Additionally, some of our master teachers are hard at work on a pilot program for our upcoming third term to study how we can move students through at more individualized paces–offering opportunities to push forward hard when students are showing mastery and utilizing appropriate methods to support students more fully when the habits of hierarchical, route learning creep up from their educational pasts. There’s no doubt our students are developing at an exponential pace. But our task is creating improvement fast enough to ensure success once they enter the workplace. Undoubtedly, reversing 13+ years of the educational past in the short time of post secondary education is no easy undertaking. I truly believe we’ll make it happen, but it will require a constant refinement to ensure student outcomes match our goals. En masse, the ebullience of this work comes from the ways in which students will master undoing their previous educational habits, while also surprising us with those we thought would be easily overcome, but required additional support and “un-teaching” in ways we didn’t expect.
Once the pilot is finalized and underway, we’ll report about our specific successes and areas for improvement. Would love to hear thoughts on how others are addressing this challenge, or how they think it can be best addressed.