US colleges are getting outsmarted by a whole new method of teaching
A fifth of college students are opting out of the fall semester, and that’s understandable. A $50,000 bill for Zoom university? No thanks.
Even putting the coronavirus pandemic aside, our higher-education system was broken a long time ago. Most universities have been following a lecture-based model since the 14th century — an era with no printing press (let alone Internet access), when it made a lot more sense to transmit information via a booming speech to a large group in a huge hall. But research shows passive lectures don’t work, and we shouldn’t be beholden to tradition.
What does work? Flipped classrooms, in which students digest course material in their own time and then use classes for interactive discussions and projects with their teachers. Instead of one-way oration from teacher to student, dynamic two-way relationships are fostered.
Think about it: Millennials love SoulCycle instructors, not only because they’re edutainers with can-do attitudes, but also because they know and remember personal details. SoulCycle instructors feel like friends. Imagine if professors felt like mentors?
Here’s what else millennials like about SoulCycle: We can access the exact classes we want, on demand. Wouldn’t that make sense for higher education, too?
“Smaller chunks of learning that are outcome-based make more sense than traditional semesters,” Michael Pochon, who taught entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon for a decade, wrote to me. “The music industry evolved from selling albums with 14 songs to letting you buy the songs you want.”
Here’s how it might work: Take the best classes from the best professors, record them, and compile them into a central digital library. Rather than completing structured programs, students could access the content they’re seeking at any time, in any order.
These vast libraries of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) — run by companies like Coursera and edX — already feature content from Harvard, MIT, you name it. But they’re nowhere near as effective as they could be — drop-off rates reach 95 percent — because they’re passive.
In a flipped approach, the video library is a small part of the educational experience. With their lectures prerecorded, instructors could instead focus on applications of their material, teasing out the nuances and extending the concepts to present-day situations with smaller groups in a more intimate setting.
Many alternative education start-ups have been doing this already — and delivering strong outcomes. The alternative online-only program Minerva has spent the last five years building the modern, liberal arts college. Its four-year program prioritizes practical skills and active learning.
Minerva classes, capped at 20, focus on discussions and group projects. Its digital platform prioritizes interaction — even alerting professors when they’ve been talking for too long.
The price tag is steep at $30,000 per year, but Minerva has a track record of results. Minerva students land internships at Amazon and other top employers. And 90 percent of managers say Minerva student performance is above average.
The Thiel Fellowship, founded in 2010, takes students out of the classroom altogether and pays them to participate. During the course of the two-year, unstructured program, 20 to 25 Fellows receive $100,000 and mentorship from the Thiel Foundation’s network of technology executives and scientists. The acceptance rate is rumored to be 0.1 percent.
One 25-year-old former Thiel Fellow, Austin Russell, took his self-driving car start-up public, via a special purpose acquisition company, in August for $3.4 billion.
Another, Delian Asparouhov, who’s now a venture capitalist at Thiel’s Founder Fund, said: “People learn at a much faster pace when they have real skin in the game.
“The Thiel Fellowship allowed me to have just enough financial freedom at a young age to start a company. I learned how to fundraise, run sales, do customer support, hire and fire. My peers at MIT on the other hand took a few more computer science classes.”
In a world where employers like Google and Apple are dropping degree requirements, and only 11 percent of business leaders believe that college graduates have the skills they need to succeed, alternative education makes sense.
No, traditional programs can’t reinvent themselves during the fall semester. But professors teaching online should embrace this moment to trial new styles of teaching — using live polls and quizzes, hosting competitions, cold calling on students to offer their thoughts to boost engagement and limit Zoom fatigue.
It’s not worth a $50,000 price tag, but it’s a start.
Paulina Karpis is the cofounder and CEO of brunchwork, a modern business education company.
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