The end of the MOOC? Not so fast.

Tonight I stumbled on this TechCrunch article about how education is changing. The author makes some good points:

  1. MOOCs haven’t fulfilled their promise and it isn’t a lack of great content. People simply don’t complete their courses.
  2. There has been a surge in education for the purpose of getting a job. I helped DevMountain get off the ground last year, so I saw this firsthand.
  3. Colleges that leave their graduates without great employment prospects and huge amounts of debt are predatory.

I agree with all of those points, but I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion that this means the Uberization of post-secondary education. As I mentioned in my last post, we need to stop looking at education simply as something that you do to get a job. Education should be something you do to enrich your life that should also lead to better job prospects.

The challenges as I see them are these:

  1. The traditional system often leaves students unprepared for work with a mound of debt. That’s unacceptable.
  2. The traditional system isn’t very scalable. If we consider education globally, a post-secondary education is still not truly available to most of the world.
  3. The completion rates for MOOCs are not promising.
  4. Few Code Academies can deliver on their promises (those that do are the exception).
  5. Job training schools tend to have a very narrow focus and prepare people for entry level positions without providing them with a strong foundation for future growth.

I think the answer is that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to traditional post-secondary education. I believe that we can enhance what we do in college with better soft skills training. I think universities should be a lot more careful about their role in lending to students, and they should look for ways to minimize costs. I also think that we owe it to most of the world to figure out how to effectively deliver low-cost instruction that people will complete.

Part of the answer to the MOOC completion problem is blended learning. Experiments in wrapping MOOCs into a blending learning environment (like this one) show that we are still trying to figure out the best way to do this, but there is reason to believe that it could work.

A Response to “A ‘Just in Case’ Education”

A friend of mine recently linked to this article:

The article makes some really important points and ends by saying, “I’m grateful for my boat- my education. I love the pursuit of knowledge” but many of the people who I have seen commenting on the article are lamenting the fact that they didn’t study a trade in college. This is probably because at one point, the author writes, “In reality, I’d known for years that my education was stale and basically useless. I had double-majored in biology and English. Do you know what the difference between a person with an English degree and a large pizza is?* Well, people with biology degrees make even less.”

More and more people are complaining about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of a college education. Peter Thiel is paying students to drop out of college. I recognize that there are people who do not want a college education. I helped DevMountain, a local code academy, get its start. So I get it. I’m not sitting in an ivory tower insisting that everyone gets a liberal arts education, BUT …

I am saying that getting an education has value in and of itself. We need to stop looking at education as a thing that you do to get a job. Education should be a lifelong pursuit and the secret is that you can get a great job regardless of your major if (and this is a big if) you learn how to connect with people, how to be accountable, and how to learn. So rather than blaming a liberal arts education for the fact that you don’t have the job you want, I would look somewhere else. This is where I think the author nails it:

Gaining an education is a great start but a degree doesn’t equal employment. Knowing where to look for a job, how to find mentors, how to interview, and developing a network are the missing part of the equation. It’s the part that I was never prepared for, never even thought about.

A degree shouldn’t equal employment. Knowing how to interview, how to network, and how to find mentors should. It’s true that this is largely missing from a college education, but guess what? That stuff is largely missing from the majors that you would expect to provide jobs. I have two degrees in accounting — it would be hard to get closer to studying a trade in school than that — and I don’t think there was enough of an emphasis on soft skills (insert accountant joke here).

I am admittedly a little bit biased. I got a great job in management consulting right out of college with a company that hired from all disciplines. PricewaterhouseCoopers hired me along with recent graduates from great universities all over the country. The peers in my training group had degrees in history, english, engineering, biology, and economics to name a few. They were smart enough to look for people who had the right soft skills and the ability to learn the trade. More employers should be like that and more students should find a way to develop soft skills while they study what they love.

Educational Game Analysis

This weekend I played two versions of the same educational game: DragonBox Algebra 5+ and DragonBox Algebra 12+. The stated objective of these games is to “secretly teach algebra to your children” so I played the first version of the game with my seven-year-old daughter, and I played the second version of the game with my twelve-year-old son.

Both games use the same mechanics, so I will describe them as if they were one game. The key difference between the two games is that the 12+ version gets to more complicated problems faster than the 5+ version.

The game starts with a brief tutorial that explains that your objective is to isolate the box card on one side of the game and it explains how to get rid of the other cards. My daughter’s first response was, “Oh, I get it! This is a matching game!” My son has already been exposed to algebra and he saw the title of the game, so there was nothing very secret about his experience.

The game is broken into chapters and each chapter has a series of puzzles. As you move through the chapters, the cards, which were originally monsters or other fun images, become letters and numbers. As the game progresses, the level of complexity of the puzzles increases, and more and more of the cards are letters and numbers instead of monsters. My daughter, who had no prior experience with algebra, played the game for an hour and without realizing it, she was solving algebra problems. My son, who has had some experience with algebra, played it for hours over the weekend, and he was solving far more complicated problems than he had been exposed to previously.

As I played the games, I was reminded of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 85). Though the game did not adapt to the learner based on the learner’s actual development level, both of my children were able to move through the early puzzles quickly until the complexity of the puzzle matched their actual development level. In the case of this game, the “more capable peer” called for in Vygotsky’s theory was played by the game’s feedback mechanisms. The game itself identified when a mistake had been made. It also identified when a puzzle could have been solved more efficiently.

I watched, for example, as my son successfully solved a puzzle but only received two of three stars because it had taken him too many moves to solve the problem. He worked through five or six different solutions before he was able to solve the problem in the most efficient way. In addition to the feedback, the game will also provide tips to help learners navigate more complex problems, increasing their actual development level.

Whether it was done intentionally or not, features of Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (Keller, 2010) were prevalent in the game. According to the ARCS model there are four steps for promoting motivation in the learning process: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction.

The game grabs the attention of the learner by presenting the learner with challenging puzzles. Active participation, variability, and inquiry were all used in the game. Game designers utilized both learner control and regular feedback to address confidence in the ARCS model. Finally, satisfaction was addressed by providing a rewards system and a sense of achievement. Both of my children were motivated to achieve three stars and to complete as many puzzles as possible. Both of them would proudly let us know when they had completed a chapter.

Interestingly, the game itself does not address relevance. In fact, it brags that it secretly teaches algebra. My son is a self-motivated learner and as I mentioned, he realized that the game was designed to teach algebra from the beginning. My daughter played the game for about an hour and enjoyed it, but my son came back to the game over and over during the weekend. He even played the game while we watched a football game. My guess is that he realized the relevance of the game, and as a result, he was more motivated to play and learn than my daughter.

Reflections on Informal Learning

In a Rossett and Hoffman article on Informal Learning, they quote Winston Churchill “Personally, I’m always read to learn, but I do not always like being taught.” This quote was particularly meaningful to me because I read this article just before visiting a number of museums in London, including the Churchill War Rooms used during World War II. The day after I returned from London, I also visited the Museum of Natural Curiosity at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, UT. So immediately following my reading about informal learning, I was fortunate enough to visit eight museums. (In London, I visited the Victoria and Albert, the Science Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, the Museum of London, and as I mentioned, the Churchill War Rooms).

In some cases, it was clear that the galleries and exhibits had been organized with specific learning objectives in mind. This was clear at museums that focused on science or history but it was less clear at the traditional art museums. Though there may have been specific learning objectives, it seemed like most of the art museum galleries and displays were organized by artist and period with no other learning objective in mind.

It is important to note that despite the lack of a clear learning objective, informal learning still occurred. In fact, I think I personally learned the most by looking at a chair on display at the Victoria and Albert (a web summary of this display can be found here). The chair on display may be a Chippendale, but because it lacks a bill, it’s provenance cannot be proven. I have been thinking about the importance of narrative, and this display really struck a chord with me. It demonstrated to me in an informal way the importance of narrative and how important stories are to us as we assign meaning to things. The Rossett and Hoffman article also mentions a display at San Diego State University where students stood in line for hours to look at a rare copy of the first printed edition of the Declaration of Independence.

While I was impressed with the displays at all of the museums, I was struck by the deliberate design of the galleries at the Museum of Natural Curiosity. I am sure it helped that we had a chance to speak with Stephen Ashton, but as I toured the galleries, it felt like everything was where it was designed to be and everything seemed designed to spark curiosity.


This sign, for example, provides an explanation of a water feature known as a “meander” and then challenges visitors to design their own waterway. Adults and children alike were working on building waterways using the various displays.


The Trading Post is another example of the museum deliberately encouraging curiosity. In fact, this device encourages museum goers to continue learning after they leave the museum. They are encouraged to find items that they can learn about, document, and bring in to the Trading Post for points towards rewards. Points can be used or accumulated for larger trades.

When I asked children what they liked about the museum, they talked about how they liked to play there. Adults mentioned that they liked that the museum kept their children entertained and they found interesting things to do as well. Nobody I spoke to described what they were doing as learning, but it was apparent that a lot of learning was occurring informally.

Returning to my visit to the Churchill War Rooms, I was able to learn a lot about Churchill and what it felt like to be at war. I could have read the same material in a book, but because I could see, touch, and smell the rooms I was able to engage in the learning without studying. The entire experience was enjoyable and even though I felt like I entered the museum with a strong grasp of World War II, I left with a deeper understanding of its impact on Great Britain. The entire experience was enjoyable and satisfying. In fact, I felt like I needed more time to fully immerse myself in the experience — something that I would be less likely to feel if I were asked to read about the war in a book.