August 27, 2012
It was a just about a year ago that a handful of Stanford professors began hatching a revolution in college education.
Sebastian Thrun, more widely known as the head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and colleague Peter Norvig would start making their popular course in artificial intelligence available online. Free of charge. To anyone in the world. About 160,000 people signed up.
A few weeks later, another Google researcher/Stanford computer scientist, Andrew Ng, followed suit, offering his equally popular course, “Machine Learning” for free. More than 100,000 people watched his lectures online. As Ng pointed out, it would have taken him 250 years to reach that many students in a conventional Stanford classroom.
The problem, of course, is that Stanford charges students in those conventional classrooms about $40,000 a year. Freebies were not a good business strategy.
By January, Thrun had lined up venture capital money and left Stanford to start Udacity, an independent, online-only education service focusing on science and technology courses. Within a few months, Ng and another Stanford computer scientist, Daphne Koller, had rounded up their own boatload of VC money–a reported $16 million to start with-and went on leave from Stanford to start their own online college operation called Coursera.
Less talk, more questions
But Ng and Koller actually have ratcheted things up another notch. Instead of just distributing its own online courses, Coursera has formed partnerships with some of America’s top universities to help them convert courses for free Internet access. Last month, the startup announced that in addition to its four original partners,–Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan–it has added 12 more, ranging from Duke and Johns Hopkins to the University of Toronto and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
So what does that mean? For starters, Coursera is spreading what’s becoming the new model for online teaching. No more videos of professors talking non-stop for an hour. Instead, lectures are chopped into much smaller chunks, say 10 minutes long, with students asked a quiz question every few minutes. They need to answer correctly before they can move on with the video.
And having tens of thousands of people taking the course at the same time makes it much easier than you would expect for students working on their own to find and study with like-minded classmates. Ng says that, on average, it takes only 22 minutes for someone to get a question answered in Coursera’s online forums.
The huge size of Internet classes–they’re now known as massive open online courses or MOOCs–also allows for much more comprehensive analysis of how subjects are taught and whether they’re understood. Since the online behavior of students is tracked–where they rewind videos, how they respond to quiz questions, etc.–professors can see where a large number of students may have struggled or given the same wrong answer and then make adjustments. Course material now not only has to be interactive, but also more dynamic. Immutable lectures, delivered as if chiseled on stone tablets, are going the way of chalkboards and elbow patches.
Professors also will be teaching classes far more culturally diverse than any they’ve previously experienced. When Coursera announced a few week ago that its enrollment had topped one million in just four months, it also noted that the students who’ve signed up for courses live in 196 different countries. Six out of 10 are outside the U.S.
Can this make money?
Is this really where college is headed? It says something that last spring Harvard and MIT launched their own their MOOC partnership called edX, and that over the summer, the University of California at Berkeley joined it. Even if top-line universities aren’t sure what they’ll gain by offering free courses to the world, they don’t want to risk being left behind if this is a template of the future.
Clearly, there remain some very large unanswered questions, starting with how do any of these partnerships make money. One notion is to charge a relatively small fee, say $50, for a student to receive a certified copy of a letter saying he or she has completed a course. In other words, it wouldn’t cost anything to take a class, but you’d have to pay for proof that you finished it.
Another idea Sebastian Thrun has floated is to have MOOCs serve as a new kind of placement service, using what they glean about students to help companies find employees with very specific skills. But, as recruiters from Intel and Dell told Bloomberg Business Week recently, a certificate for an online course may help someone land a job, but only if they already have a conventional, sit-in-a-classroom four-year degree. Only a very few colleges, including the University of Washington and the University of Helsinki, have agreed to give credit to students who complete MOOC courses.
What about cheating?
No question that plenty of skeptics are dubious about the depth and quality of an online education, who feel the sheer size of the classes precludes any level of one-on-one learning and also invites cheating.
So far only about 25 percent of the people who have enrolled in Coursera courses have actually completed them. And earlier this month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported “dozens” of complaints about plagiarism in essays written for some of the humanities courses Coursera is now offering. (Almost all of the free online courses to date have been in science or technology.)
The accusations actually came from other students, who, in the Coursera system, grade and comment on each other’s essays. In response to the complaints, Coursera reminded students of the honor code they signed when they enrolled. It also is considering using software that can detect plagiarism.
Some professors in the program have suggested that cultural differences could, at least in part, explain why someone would lift whole sections of text from Wikipedia for a course for which they’re not receiving any credit. Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor who teaches a Coursera class, told the Chronicle that one student who admitted plagiarizing content said he didn’t realize copying and pasting text from another site was inappropriate.
Coursera’s Daphne Koller would point out that this comes with making top college courses available in places where a year ago it would have been inconceivable. She put it this way recently: “This could enable a wave of innovation because amazing talents can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein, or the next Steve Jobs, is living in a remote village in Africa.”
Here are a few other ways technology is changing education:
- Pack light: Another well-financed online initiative called The Minerva Project will be added to the mix by 2014. Its goal is to be the first elite global university. From sophomore year on, students will be encouraged to live in a new country, or at least a new city, every semester.
- That algorithm just doesn’t understand me: Winners of a competition sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation have devised algorithms that can grade essays.
- Today’s assignment is from “Mythbusters:” Big media companies, such as Discovery Communications and the News Corporation, are moving into the digital textbooks business in a big way. They see it as a boom market that could become a new source of revenue.
- You tie shoes?: According to an infographic from LearnStuff.com, 1.5 million iPads will be used in classrooms this year. Also, while 70 percent of American children between ages two and five can use a computer mouse, only 11 percent can ties their own shoes.
Video bonus: Want to hear why so many top universities have become enamored of Coursera? Here’s co-founder Daphne Koller, in a recent TED talk, laying out why online courses should be a big part of college education’s future.
Also on Smithsonian.com
April 12, 2012
In two weeks Frankenstein returns…and this time it’s personal.
At least for you it could be. Mary Shelley’s tale of monstrous obsession and an obsessive monster is being revived as an interactive book, specifically an app for iPads and iPhones. What that means isn’t absolutely clear. But one of the people responsible for reconstituting the novel in digital form, author Dave Morris, says it’s not simply a matter of a reader making choices that change the story. It’s more nuanced than that, he insists.
While a reader of the interactive Frankenstein will make decisions that affect the story, they’re “part of the interaction with the main characters,” says Morris, and not just shifts in the narrative. Explains Morris: “As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main characters. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature–it’s truly a new kind of novel for the digital age.”
That may sound like a lofty description of bells and whistles, but the London publisher, Profile Books, and inkle, the U.K.-based design firm that worked with Morris to interactivate Frankenstein, truly believe this will be a watershed moment in literature, the point at which readers will no longer be satisfied in going along for the ride with a book, but will start to want to brake and steer and maybe look under the hood.
Instant messages as dialogue
Now I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why would I want to work so hard?” Why reconstruct when so much joy can be had reading and imagining? A lot of people in the publishing business would agree with you. But they feel they have no choice. A recent Pew Internet study found that about one out of five Americans now say they’ve read an e-book. Last year U.S. consumers bought more than 48 million iPads, Android tablets or e-readers, twice as many as in 2010.
And even if the large majority of readers are still taking their e-books straight, publishers worry about falling behind the curve, particularly with a generation that embraces storytelling in tweets and IMs and expects lives to come with a mix tape. So Simon & Schuster plans to bring out 60 “enhanced” e-books this year; Penguin says it will release 50.
But “enhanced,” it seems, can cover a lot of ground. With the digital version of Chopsticks a young adult novel published by Penguin in February, “readers” can flip through a photo album, watch video clips, listen to the favorite songs of the book’s characters, see their instant messages. You even can consume the book in shuffle mode–that’s right, you’re able to change the order of content.
Why stop there? Other publishers are looking at ways to make book-reading more social than solitary. For instance, Panio Gianopoulos, co-founder of Backlit Fiction, speaks of a “literary Farmville.” (Now there’s a phrase I thought I’d never see.) That could mean readers voting to flesh out characters and storylines they like or they getting access to secret chapters if they encourage friends to read the book.
“Multimedia is more than a tie-in,” Gianopoulos told Wired in a recent interview. “Done right, it becomes a new type of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one has even thought of yet.”
Whatever it becomes, it’s likely to feel less and less like a book. Truth is, no one knows how long it will take–if ever–for hybrid storytelling to go mainstream. Many enhanced e-books do have a heavy scent of CD-ROMs, and we know how they turned out.
Writer Laura Miller got to the heart of the matter in a recent piece for Salon.com when she raised the question of whether we can immerse ourselves in a narrative and be interactive at the same time.
“Narrative constructs this alternate reality in your imagination and narrative sustains it,” she wrote. “What matters is not the story on the page–or the screen–but the story in your head. Interactive baubles pull a reader’s attention back to the screen, serving as a reminder of the thing you want to go on forgetting: the fact that all of this is just made up, words on a page.”
Miller, however, does see great potential in reinventing non-fiction books. There our aim is to understand more than imagine and so animations or videos that clarify concepts or illustrate a process really do enhance the experience. Who wouldn’t want a step-by-step video with a cookbook?
Yet no one in the publishing business is sure where all this is headed. They do know that it’s heading there fast and they’re still trying to figure out what works where and how. Or as Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia puts it: “We’re all still sort of creating radio for TV.”
Video bonus: Here’s the promotional video for the aforementioned Chopsticks. There’s a book in there somewhere.
January 26, 2012
Last week Steve Jobs came back to life. Or at least his aura did. At an “education event” in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Apple proclaimed that the time has come to “reinvent the textbook” and who better to do it than Apple. The mythic leader himself had put a Jobsian spin on the matter during one of his interviews with writer Walter Issacson for the best-selling biography, Steve Jobs. Textbook publishing, Jobs pronounced, was “an $8 billion industry ripe for digital destruction.”
Let the sacking begin.
In a time when your cell phone can tell you the weather forecast and your car can give you directions, textbooks can feel so, well, unresponsive. They’re not all that different from what they were like when people were riding horses to work, except they cost a whole lot more. They’re still are a pain to keep current, still get dog-earred, still can make you feel like you’re lugging around bricks.
Enter the iPad. Apple’s solution, naturally, is to replace textbooks with sleek, light, nimble iPads and its big announcement last week was that it’s rolling out a new version of its electronic bookstore called iBooks 2, and filling it with titles of its new partners, some of the biggest textbook publishers in the business. The e-books will cost $14.99 each, a pittance in this business, and be a breeze to update. Plus, they’ll be interactive, with touchscreen diagrams, audio and video. And you’ll be able to do word searches.
Apple even has research to back up its contention that the iPad blows away the conventional textbook as a teaching tool. A study done in a California middle school last year found that almost 20 percent more students (78 percent versus 59 percent) scored ”Proficient” or “Advanced” in Algebra I courses when using an iPad.
So it’s all good, right?
Well, there is the matter of how you ensure that every kid has an iPad. Even if Apple offers a discount below the $500 price tag, most public schools aren’t exactly flush with cash these days. And not everyone has been dazzled by Apple’s innovation. Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a program that helps intergrate technology into the classroom, says that for all the bells and whistles, what iBooks brings to education is more tweak than reinvention. It still treats students as consumers, whereas technology at its best, says Martinez, encourages them to be creators.
Blogger Steve McCabe, writing in “Tidbits,” which covers Apple products, goes even farther. He hopes that in future iterations, Apple’s textbook software will allow more personalized learning where the content will be able to interact with the student–Siri turns tutor–instead of just the other way around. For now, McCabe argues, Apple is offering students an experience not all that different from a CD-ROM in the 1990s.
Steve Jobs is rolling over.
The new college try
Even more dramatic changes in education are bubbling up at the college level. Last month MIT announced the launch this spring of a new initiative called MITx, which will allow people around the world to take MIT courses. For free.
Getting an MIT education at no charge seems like one sweet deal, although it’s not quite that simple. The course selection will be fairly limited, at least initially, and a MITx student won’t be able to earn a degree, but simply a “certificate of completion.” It’s also possible that there will be an “affordable” charge for a certificate. But unlike other online courses the university offers, the MITx platform will give students access to real online labs–not just simulations–and student-to-student discussions. It’s open source software and MIT expects other universities and high schools around the country will eventually end up using it.
That will only swell the latest wave of free online learning, pioneered by websites such as Academic Earth, which began streaming videos of lectures by professors at the country’s top universities almost four years ago and now has Bill Gates among its biggest fans, and Khan Academy, the brainchild of MIT graduate Salman Khan, who began making his conversational video tutorials in 2005 and now has more than 100,000 people around the world viewing his lessons every day. (See Khan’s recent interview with Forbes to see where he thinks all this is headed.) There’s Codeacademy, which teaches coding newbies how to build apps.
And now add a new player called Udacity, which has its own curious history. Last fall Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who’s also been leading the development of Google’s driverless car, sent out an email to a professional network saying that he would offer his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course–the same one he taught at the university–online without charge. Within days 10,000 people had signed up; eventually 160,000 would, including an unusually large contingent of Lithuanians and several Afghans who skirted through war zones to get to Internet connections. When the course ended in December, 248 people had earned perfect scores; none of them was an official Stanford student.
Things apparently got a little tense when Thrun let Stanford administrators know about his plan to offer his class for free. So it’s no surprise that he decided to leave the university and go out on his own. He describes using technology to make free, high-quality education available worldwide as “like a drug.”
Next month Udacity will offer its first two courses, “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” Not for everyone, but available to anyone.
Video Bonus: Watch Sebastian Thrun’s talk at the recent Digital Life Design conference and hear how his decision to teach free courses felt like a choice out of The Matrix.
January 17, 2012
Most innovators aren’t inventors. We were reminded of that again last year during the swirl of coverage of Steve Jobs, who achieved his godlike status largely through his unique ability to distill, refine and, above all, execute the ideas of others. As the new year begins to pick up speed, it’s a good time to take a look at some young entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking, rather than pure invention, has them poised for big things in 2012.
Can’t stop the music: The recording industry has been in a death spiral for awhile now, dating back to when Napster fed the notion among a generation that freedom to download music without paying is an inalienable right laid out in the Constitution, or maybe it was the Magna Carta. Whatever. Bottom line is that CDs are going the way of the 8-track. But all may not be lost, thanks to a Swedish computer geek-turned-musician-turned-Internet-innovator. That would be Daniel Ek, who launched Spotify in Europe three years ago when he was 25.
Earlier this month Forbes magazine called him “the most important man in music.” That’s probably over the top, but Ek has devised a model that provides instant access to free music while pumping up struggling record labels through licensing fees. Spotify, which makes its money through advertising and user fees ($10 a month for mobile access to your playlists, $5 a month to avoid ads), didn’t roll out in the U.S. until last summer, but raised its profile dramatically a few months later when it hooked up with Facebook. Ek knows that building a personal brand is a subtext of the Facebook experience and a person’s taste in music is often a big part of that. So now, through Spotify, Facebook users see the songs their friends listen to and the playlists they compile, and with a single click, can give a listen. If Spotify goes mainstream in the U.S. this year, Forbes just may be right.
Return of the pin-ups: Often the shrewdest innovations are about carving out the right niche at the right time and so it appears to be with Pinterest, the hot social network of the moment. As someone who says he was a “maniacal” insect collector while growing up in Iowa, co-founder Ben Silbermann realized how passionate people can be about their hobbies or collections. And he and his partners, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra, also recognized that posting photos has become as popular a means of self-expression on social networks as clever status updates and funny video links. So they combined passions and photos in Pinterest, where members can “pin” up pictures–their own or ones found on the Web–of their hobbies or just quirky obsessions. They could be muscle cars or Amish quilts or Halloween costumes made of duct tape. Hey, it’s your show. Yes, a year from now Pinterest could be yet another Web sensation gone south. But some analysts are already saying it’s worth more than $150 million.
Power play: Wind and solar energy are clearly appealing alternatives to 50-year-old coal-powered plants pumping out pollutants. But clean energy sources still face a big hurdle: If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, how do you keep the lights on? That’s the key to wind and solar becoming core components of the power grid and it’s why a lot of researchers are trying to find ways to cheaply and efficiently store energy that comes from renewable sources. Danielle Fong, chief scientist for an California company called LightSail Energy, is focusing on a process in which wind and solar power would be converted to compressed air. Then, when needed, it could be expanded to drive turbines that support the power grid. Fong’s only 24, but based on her credentials, you have to think that she has as good a shot as anyone at solving this one. At the age of 12 she was taking college-level physics sources; at 17, she was studying nuclear fusion at Princeton.
Copy that: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3-D printers. Imagine being able to download specs for a part you need, then printing it out in your home office. Or have your kids or grandkids use it to build toys they designed themselves. The reality, though, is that it’s likely to be years, maybe even a decade, before they’re as common as PCs in our homes. But if it does happen sooner rather than later, Bre Pettis and MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based outfit he heads as CEO, will have a lot to do with it. They’ve brought the cost of 3-D printers down to about $1,000 and just last week unveiled the MakerBot Duplicator, which prints objects in two colors. But for Pettis, it’s not just about building a business; he once was a teacher and one of his dreams is to bring 3-D printers into the classroom where they can really tap into kids’ creativity.
When cheese says cheese: If most of us had seen what Alexa Andrzejewski did a few years ago while visiting Japan and South Korea, we probably would have dismissed it as slightly bizarre dining behavior and gone back to our meal we couldn’t pronounce. But Andrzejewski, a one-time graphic designer, thought there was something to it. What she saw was people taking pictures of their meals with their cell phones. She first thought about doing a picture book of exotic meals. But she ultimately concluded that she may have found a way to differentiate a business from all of the restaurant mobile apps out there. Why not provide diner reviews of specific meals and build them around photos of the food so people could see what they’d be ordering.
That was the genesis of Foodspotting, a mobile app that shows you pictures of meals that are near where you are at the moment. Or as Andrzejewki puts it, it’s like gazing at the windows of a bakery, except you’re staring at your phone. Now the company is looking for ways to build its business by partnering with apps that let diners know about deals and working with restaurants that want to promote their specials. It also plans to release a new version of its app, one that suggests nearby meals based on your preferences.
Thanks for sharing: The latest estimates are that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re going to need some pretty innovative thinking about urban life over the next decade if we’re going to keep cities liveable. One person who’s been giving this a lot of thought is Alex Steffen. He’s the author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century, which was updated last year. He’s also been called a futurist and he is, but in a practical way. Steffen’s very big, for instance, on the growth of a culture within cities where people share instead of own, whether it’s cars, sports equipment or power drills. He also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than putting plants and trees on rooftops to make cities sustainable and keep them from, as he puts it, “stealing the future.”
Good reads: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other bloggers worth watching this year because of their insightful takes on all things innovative, starting with Dominic Basulto, who works at Electric Artists in New York, but whose writing appears regularly at at Ideas@Innovation at WashingtonPost.com and at BigThink.com. Another deserving a visit is David Dobbs’ “Neuron Culture“ blog for Wired.com. And to stay on top of the latest tech, stop by when you can at the “Bits” blog on the New York Times website.
Video Bonus: Salman Khan has made a big splash with his Khan Academy, built around low-tech, conversational educational videos. Check out his TED Talk from last year on using video to reinvent education.
August 22, 2011
As campuses begin to fill, it seems fitting to ask: When so many corporate execs say they want employees who are creative, critical thinkers who know how to collaborate, why are the chief measures of future performance standardized tests for which there is only one right answer for every problem and working together is, to put it mildly, frowned upon?
Education has always been a laggard to innovation. That reality is made clear in a new book about attention and the brain, Now You See It, by Cathy Davidson. She estimates that as many as 65 percent of the kids now in grade school will likely end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. And yet most schools still follow a model not all that different from when Henry Ford was pumping out Model Ts and Pittsburgh actually had steel mills. Education then—and now—is geared to serve an industrial economy, one in which conformity and punctuality kept the engine running and creativity gunked it up.
To Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, this makes about as much sense as teaching kids how to make wooden barrels. There was a reason her students who turned in lame term papers could also churn out perfectly fine blogs. The latter was about writing for the world in which they lived, a highly social place where ideas bounce around like marbles in an empty bathtub, feedback is immediate and sharing trumps syntax.
Davidson is big on teaching digital literacy, not so much how to use the tools—the kids could teach that—but how to use them to develop ideas and express themselves responsibly. For instance, starting in grade school, students would be expected to collaborate on wikis and award points to classmates who move projects forward. The idea is to encourage students to take all this sharing and turn it into a productive way to solve problems and shape their world.
Not that Davidson is the only one thinking imaginatively about education. Plenty of people are, such as advocates for deep-sixing the standard lecture.
Ten years ago, the big thing was STEM, the initiative to keep the U.S. competitive, both by merging Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into one mega-discipline and shifting the focus from teacher talk to problem-solving and collaborative learning. Meanwhile, though, a lot of schools dealt with budget-slashing by eviscerating arts programs to the point where arts education became little more than reminding kids when “Glee” was on.
But now, with companies looking for creative thinkers and multimedia communicators, the arts—particularly media arts—are being worked back into the mix. Or, as they say in the land of acronyms, STEM is becoming STEAM. This has inspired no one less than Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to quote Einstein.
As for phasing out the exercises in ennui more commonly known as lectures, that’s the mission of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who thinks the conventional arrangement should be flipped: students learn material on their own time, with classes saved for making sense of how it applies in the real world. Mazur has created his own interactive software, Learning Catalytics, to ease the transition for skittish professors.
Let’s go to the video
Allow me to recommend a few relevant videos, some of which are, admittedly, lectures.
- Let’s start with Ken Robinson, one of the few people who can call himself a creativity expert without a whiff of arrogance. He’s been writing and speaking about creativity in education and business for more than 20 years now and nobody does it better. After a high-ranking British government official once told him that while creativity in education was important, the country’s schools needed to focus on literacy first, Robinson replied, “That’s like saying we’re going to bake a cake and if it works out, then we’ll put the eggs in.” His lectures are all over the web, but my favorite is this TED talk, made that much more entertaining by the work of RSA Animate.
- The aforementioned Cathy Davidson weighs in on the need to “unlearn” much of what we know about education if we want it to be relevant in the 21st century.
- Management guru Tom Peters—a bit over the top, as always—lays into the U.S. educational system in this 2008 talk, in which he implores audience members never to hire someone with a 4.0 GPA.
- It took place eons ago in Internet years, but this 2002 TED talk by Mae Jemison, a physician and the first African-American woman in space, is right on point. She warns against the consequences of keeping science and the arts separated.
- And finally, here’s a TED lecture by Brian Crosby, a Nevada elementary school teacher, who shares how his classes of low-income kids, most of whom speak English as a second language, have flourished in the world of wikis and blogs.
All of us have at least one teacher who knew how to hook us in, even before there was an Internet. My favorite was my 7th grade teacher, Roberta Schmidt. I will never forget the day she explained how ancient Egyptians mummified a body, especially the part about removing the brain through the nostrils. For a 12-year-old boy, that’s gold.
What about you? What teacher do you wish you could have cloned? And why?