Brooks on How People Change

Thought-provoking piece on How People Change by David Brooks yesterday — especially after spending Thanksgiving with parental units!

He’s writing about adults, but I wonder whether he’d say the same thing about students. Thinking about students, from my experience at Excel, I’d say he’s got pieces of the puzzle right, but not all of it. His take is necessarily simplistic for a short op-ed, and it doesn’t read as though he’s read up on the literature about behavior change, character development, etc. — but he has some good points nonetheless. Love the emphasis on redirection; small steps; clear system of positive/negative consequences with emphasis on positive (wonder how he’d apply to adults?); and need to be in it with patience and persistence for the long haul. Disagree about foolhardiness of directly addressing mental elements / attitudes and focusing just on observable behavior. Narrating the change with consistent, bold language and going after ambitious shift in attitude / expectations is central to Excel’s success and that of other no-excuses schools. And other key pieces of a holistic approach are missing.

Just got a shout from a really talented ex-SFER student from Harvard now doing TFA in Miami about the November-doldrums-slog with trying to change behaviors among lowest-performing 9th graders. I don’t envy her entry point — 9th grade is really late to be starting the change process in earnest. Even catching kids as 10-year-olds at Excel felt late, though as Paul Tough would tell you, early adolescence is the second huge window (first being early childhood) for shaping kids’ character because of brain development phase & meta-cognition.

As we think about starting a new kind of college, is college way too late to be shaping character? To the extent we’re selective, do we just select for character a la Generation Rwanda’s traditional program and promising new models in the US like Portmont? Can we still shape? I hope so.

Financial aid as tiered pricing

Interesting piece from Kevin Carey on how financial aid isn’t really philanthropy but instead just disguised tiered pricing strategy. This is thought-provoking as we think about how to price Kepler and Kepler-like models overseas, particularly as one thinks about varying how thick the ‘offline’ component of the hybrid should be (with cost implications that flow from that). Might potentially offer different service levels, in addition to tiered pricing by ability to pay for a given service level.

During my time slinging drugs in the global health world, I was a big believer in tiered pricing as long as it’s practiced responsibly. Too often it isn’t.

MIT Media Lab in Rwanda?

Love this piece in Wired about Joi Ito and the MIT Media Lab starting to push the geographic boundaries, starting with — you guessed it — Detroit! Our ED Jamie is a native Piston and would approve.

Midway through the piece Joi mentions Rwanda: “In the old days, being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can’t find you on the internet, if they’re not talking about you in Rwanda, you’re irrelevant. That’s the worst thing in the world for any researcher. The people inventing things might be in Kenya, and they go to the internet and search.”

Well, Mr. Ito, we can help with that! Geographical boundaries of education are blowing up and with our friends in Rwanda we’re adding our hands to the TNT plunger.

What else to love about this?

  • MIT in general is on my crush list right now – most important university in the world?
  • Great language here: Ito set out some of his key principles. These included: “Encourage rebellion instead of compliance”; “Practice instead of theory”; ” Constant learning instead of education”; “Compass over map”. “The key principles include disobedience — no one ever won a Nobel prize by doing as they’re told,” he explains later. “And it’s about resilience versus strength — you don’t try to resist failure, you allow failure and bounce back. And compass over map is important — you need to know where you’re going, but the cost of planning often exceeds the cost of actually trying. The maps you have are often wrong. These principles affect and apply to just about any organisation.”
  • He’s an unbundler. Ito attended Tufts and UChicago but dropped out without getting a degree. “I figured out a way to cobble together an education using academic institutions without actually getting a degree. So I’m an antidisciplinary self-made academic.” Mr. Ito, will you join our advisory board? 🙂
  • We owe Guitar Hero and the coolest Lego products ever to the Media Lab, among more serious (really?) things
  • What big problems does Negroponte — founder of the One Laptop Per Child project — believe the lab can help solve today? “The biggest is eliminating poverty. How do you have a world of infinite zero-cost energy, infinite zero-cost education, how do you make a creative society — all these seemingly unrealistic things? Whatever path you take, you know the answer is through technology. In a world where technology is increasingly a bad word, it is up to an organisation like the Media Lab to keep pushing that technological envelope.” Long live the Media Lab!

The Florida bellwether of another kind

Florida’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform is recommending that the state’s public universities charge students different tuition rates for different majors. The price for “high-skill, high-wage and high-demand (market determined demand)” degrees — as determined by each school — would be frozen, with lost revenue offset by increases for other degrees that are presumably lower skill, lower wage or lower demand. Had this applied to me during college, I would have likely paid more for my international affairs degree than my pre-med friends who chose biology.


The rationale for this eyebrow-raising approach reminds us of several forces that characterize our post-Great Recession reality — and that of many emerging economies facing even bigger hurdles to developing and sustaining the higher education system that is the key to prosperity in today’s world.

  • Resources are scarce. Faced with high unemployment and a soft economy, Florida needs to generate the highest return on each tax dollar invested in higher ed. In an age where technology is king, STEM graduates presumably have the biggest and most direct impact on the economy’s growth and long-term competitiveness.
  • Education has a bottom line. A college education is not just a four year pursuit of self-discovery and intellectual curiosity. Although it can be just that for some, for most of us it’s ultimately about preparing to join the workforce and bring skills to bear that can create real value for ourselves, our organizations and society. The economic value we get from our education should exceed what we pay for it.
  • Not all forms of education are created equal. Every discipline — from electrical engineering to the classics to drama — is part of the puzzle that we have been trying for millennia to piece together to better understand our world. But at any given time, different types of knowledge have more or less impact on our society’s ability to pursue our collective priorities and goals and shape the trajectory of our future.


Though an affront to the view of higher education as the pinnacle of intellectual development and training ground for the academy, I think these forces will come to shape our attitudes toward higher education and our choices — including how we allocate resources — for some time here at home. For many smart, inspired young people in emerging economies, education is the single most important investment their family can make to break out of what Avichal Garg eloquently calls the default state of screwed. Resources are scarce all around — neither families nor the government has the cash to invest in education as much as they would like, and banks are not exactly lining up to provide debt. So families bank everything on one talented child going to college, in hopes that he’ll pull up the rest (and yes, too often is it he not she). Public universities offer too few spots in too crowded lecture halls. In this world, education is not just about expanding the mind, though hopefully that is indeed achieved — it’s about learning something useful, landing a job and paying for the rest of the siblings’ school fees. Today, a family’s or society’s steps up the ladder of development will most likely be powered by skills like business administration, computer science and engineering (the main majors (to be) offered at Ashesi University in Ghana, one of my main inspirations in education in Africa).


Kepler can transform higher education in Rwanda — and eventually the region — by figuring out how to equip large numbers of young people with the Character, Knowledge and Work they need to compete in our interconnected and knowledge-driven economy. Given the scale of unmet need and, importantly, untapped human potential, our challenge is to deliver the best quality educational experience through the most efficient use of resources possible. This means being thoughtful about both what we teach and how. What skills do employers need today? What skills will Rwanda need tomorrow to become the next Singapore? How can we leverage technology to unbundle the elements of a great education and deliver the whole package more affordably? That’s what our journey hopes to find out.


Catching up

“Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, analyzed surveys of time use by college students from the 1920s through the present. They found that in 1961, the average full-time college student spent twenty-four hours a week studying outside of the classroom. By 1981, that had fallen to twenty hours a week, and in 2003, it was down to fourteen hours a week, not much more than half of what it had been forty years earlier. This phenomenon transcended boundaries: ‘Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups,’ Babcock and Marks wrote, ‘for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity.’ And where did all those extra hours go? To socializing and recreation, mostly…and so Nelson sees freshman year as a ‘magical timeframe’ for OneGoal students ‘where they can radically close the achievement gap.'”

-Paul Tough, How Children Succeed

Jeff Nelson’s OneGoal program is designed to help disadvantaged high-school students reach college and succeed once they get there.  One interesting observation he makes is that over the last 50 years, academic intensity has decreased dramatically in college, and this presents an opportunity for OneGoal participants to catch up to their relatively privileged peers.  

But while Nelson focuses on the first year as the key for his students – when slacking off is most prevalent – this made me think about the other three years as well.  By redesigning a degree from the ground up, can use all four years to gain ground on students in traditional university programs?  What if we could make all of college dramatically more intense, replacing fluff classes, partying, and ivory tower academics with a laser focus on the hard skills and knowledge necessary to compete in the job market?  What if Kepler students worked three or four times harder than the typical college student?  How quickly can we close the gap to even the best educated university graduates?

I’m excited to find out.

Times of Change

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

-Eric Hoffer

As the world of higher ed is reshaped by technology, existing higher ed institutions do have some advantages – intellectual capital, excellent faculty and teachers, and strong brands.  But they have challenges as well.  Here’s an excerpt from a really insightful piece from the University Ventures team describing the challenges incumbents faced in the airline industry as a model for the future of higher ed:

“When the discount airline model became possible as a result of deregulation, many traditional carriers started their own discount carrier: United begat Shuttle by United and then Ted; Delta begat Delta Express and then Song; US Air begat MetroJet; Air Canada begat Air Canada Tango.

They all failed. They failed because they attempted to leverage the operations of the parent carrier. The traditional operations were hub-and-spoke, whereas the new discount model worked best point-to-point. The traditional operations had more costly product and process design. Traditional operations were less productive per labor unit. And traditional operations had labor costs sometimes 50 percent higher than what a new entrant would pay.”

The article makes the case that the winners in this shift were pure discount players like Southwest Airlines that didn’t have existing overhead and preconceived strategies to hold them back.  As we build out Kepler and are able to re-design a degree from scratch, models like Southwest certainly inspire us.  Like Southwest did with their fleet of airplanes, rather than trying to build expertise in a large set of fields, we’re simplifying our curriculum and focusing on a few high-ROI majors.  Similar to Southwest’s distributed infrastructure to support point-to-point flights instead of an expensive central hub-and-spoke model, we’re avoiding major investments in an expensive single campus.  With a laser focus on what our customers need, and the ability to discard the costly elements of a traditional university that don’t directly contribute to educational quality, we do believe we can create something smarter and cheaper than existing options.

However, what’s missing in this metaphor – and one of the reasons we are so excited to be working in education – is that while the airline industry is characterized by cutthroat competition, the leaders in higher ed are institutions with strong social missions and a culture of collaboration.  The emphasis on ‘disruption’ in the press sometimes misses this point.  From universities sharing branded, high-quality content for free, to foundations and governments investing in new models and platforms, there are opportunities for new models in higher education to partner with and draw strength from existing players rather than simply ‘disrupt’ them.

In designing Kepler, we’re building a lean organization in the model of Southwest, while also working hard to build close partnerships with the best organizations in higher education.  All with the vision that if we can provide the right tools, our learners in Rwanda – some of the most focused, brilliant, and gritty students we’ve ever met – really can inherit the earth.