What’s Next? Slowness

April 17, 2012

I’m getting some pretty definite messages to slow down in my personal and professional life.

My editor at Fast Company, quote: “You need to slow down. I’d rather have you write two amazing features in a year than four all right ones.”

Magda Gerber, author of Dear Parent, the last parenting book I read, with chapters including “At their own time, and in their own way”, “Learning to Observe” “and WAIT!”: “Do less. Enjoy more.”

Plus, this week, I got turned down for a fellowship application (that I threw together on my maternity leave) and a proposal for a book, (that I also threw together on my maternity leave), is not going to happen right now, for reasons that have nothing to do with me.

I’m so incredibly lucky to have work that intersects with my passions. I feel that I have an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the changes I want to see in the world, by gathering information, telling stories about those changes,  and getting people excited about the possibilities. Now that I have a daughter the motivations become a lot more complex. I want her to grow up with a mother who has work that she loves, and I want her to feel that I’m available and present to her. I want to rush through my work so I can get home and be with her, and I want my work to be really really good and “important” to justify the fact that I’m taking time away from her to do it.

SO I have to take my time. It’s not just about being efficient and productive. I have to do a careful gut check on each opportunity that comes my way and make sure : A. Is it consonant with my values? B. Is it high impact? C. Does it pay well? D. Will it be enjoyable?  (A+B+C+D = YES. A+C  OR A+B+D = Probably. )

Part of what that means for this blog is that I’ll be crossposting a lot from FastCompany.com, where I’ll be making an effort to cover the future of education on a weekly basis.

I just got back from speaking about DIY U at Ft. Hays State University in western Kansas, a spot reachable only by a 19-seat prop plane with no bathroom. Despite that, I learned, they have over 200 students from China, and even more remarkably, they have 3600 Chinese students studying IN China as part of a few different dual degree programs, who will earn both Chinese and American diplomas in four years. This tiny rural campus, founded as a state teachers’ normal college in 1905, was the first American instiution certified to grant degrees in China, a relationship they’ve pursued as one of a series of international partnerships thanks to their director of partnerships and distance learning, Cindy Elliott, who was headed for Turkey and Dubai the day after my visit; they also have their sights set on India. To that end they’re developing an interdisciplinary degree program in Global Business English. At the same time, they’ve radically expanded their online offerings. Several staff members are committed to helping professors adopt free and open-source tools and materials; Cable Green of Creative Commons is coming to speak in a few months. And they do all of this with pretty damn low tuition: $2449 per semester for in-state 18-credit-hour undergrads and $7400 for out-of-state.

I mention this because I was surprised and impressed and I want to give credit where credit’s due. There’s so much hype about educational innovation coming from Boston or Silicon Valley, but as part of my work I have to remember to shed light on the Southern New Hampshires and western Kansases of the world.

(crossposted, with edits, from FastCompany.com. I’m going to be covering the future of education at least once a week over there; subscribe to my feed here.)
No new elite world-class universities have been founded for at least 100 years (Stanford-1891; Rice-1912), and most of them are centuries older than that. Ben Nelson, former CEO of Snapfish, has just announced that he’s starting a new one, for-profit and online. The Minerva Project has scored $25 million, the biggest seed bet in Benchmark Capital’s history, for a projected 2014 launch.

Nelson, improbably, has been a university-reform geek since his undergraduate days at Wharton, where he organized multidisciplinary courses and field trips. He sees a huge untapped market, especially internationally, for undergraduate liberal arts education at the elite level. “Harvard says that 80-85% of its applicants are fully qualified for admission, yet they have a 5.9% acceptance rate,” he tells Fast Company. “We think, conservatively, there are 250,000 English-fluent, smart, driven young people who aren’t able to get into an Ivy League university or equivalent in their home countries, and if we capture 1% of that market, we’ll be self-sustaining.”

Unlike the free, open, often self-paced online courses offered by Udacity, Coursera, Udemy, MITx, and other new ventures, Minerva will ask students to watch a pre-recorded video lecture in real time, while interacting over video chat with classmates and discussion leaders. Despite time zone, bandwidth, and equipment issues, the synchronous model has worked for 2Tor, a startup headed by Jon Katzman of the Princeton Review that built online versions of graduate programs at USC, UNC, and Georgetown. Nelson intends to charge somewhere under $20,000 in annual tuition, or less than half of what elites are asking (but a similar price point to the University of Phoenix).

He’s attracted a lot of money and packed his board with ex-university presidents, notably Larry Summers (Harvard) and Bob Kerrey (New School).”Larry was one of the first to come on board,” said Nelson. “He said, what you’re doing is critical. You’re harnessing the potential of so many elite students out there.”

But offering something equivalent to the Ivy League in the confines of a computer screen is a tall order. Minerva promises to recruit top-quality professors, develop an advanced interdisciplinary core curriculum, and maintain high standards by flunking lots of people (rather than rejecting them at the applicant end). And here’s the weirdest part: Though the classes are online, they expect students to live together in “dorm clusters” all over the world, starting locally and then rotating around to spend a semester in Mumbai, Vancouver, Shenzen, or wherever. I asked Nelson what will happen when a student in one of those dorms ODs or harasses her roommate, and he waved his hand and said they’ll outsource management. My suspicion is that administrative overhead will quickly grow beyond expectations, and that his investors’ impatience will grow, too. “We never talked IPO, we never talked exit,” Nelson insists. “Our conversations were all about the tremendous need for this.”

Crossposted/Adapted from FastCompany.com

TED, the conference dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” took a step forward in its educational mission today by launching a TEDEd video channel on YouTube. Shorter than the 18-minute TED talks that have racked up 500 million views, these videos feature a combination of talking heads from TED stages and animation (artwork by Fast Company Most Creative Person Sunni Brown, among others) tackling topics like neuroscience and evolution for a high-school-aged audience. The channel allows viewers to nominate teachers they know to create their own TEDEd videos with production and distribution support from TED.

I was at TED last year when they announced this new education initiative, with no details, and quite honestly, I thought they were going to come up with something a little more exciting than a new set of videos. (This was the same TED where Sal Khan of Khan Academy also spoke.) Something that built on the viral platform they have going on with TEDx, (expanding the TEDx Kids/Youth or TEDxNYED programs?) and/or something that recognized the work that teachers out there are already doing to bring TED videos into their lesson plans. Or at least something with an adaptive learning platform to match what they have tried to do with TED Conversations.

Instead, what they’ve created with TEDEd’s starter set of videos is just a fancier lecture-like tool, with TED’s trademark high production values. On the press call Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, hinted at some interactive tools to come next month. In the meantime, teachers will no doubt continue to talk amongst themselves about the best ways to use TED videos in the classroom.

Recent News

February 13, 2012

I’ve been on maternity leave, but the education conversation continues…

Beyond the Pale on WBAI, with the estimable Ross Perlin

Official launch of the Learning, Freedom and the Web ebook

and talking student debt on Need to Know on PBS

Watch Anya Kamenetz on the ‘Debt Generation’ on PBS. See more from Need to Know.

It’s finally here, the book of our dreamy time in Barcelona. Experience the magic 12 to 1 ET on Wednesday, January 25. I’m breaking my maternity leave just to chat with Phillip Schmidt of P2PU, so you know it has to be good.

Get the book here:

How can the ideas of the open source movement help foster learning? What are the most effective ways to bring learning to everyone? How does openness help the spread of knowledge? Part exhibition catalog, part manifesto, this is a concise, fun-to-read introduction to what Mozilla is doing to support learners everywhere.

Tabula Rasa

December 15, 2011


For the next few months I’ll be embarking on a radical new long-term experiment in home-based open participatory peer learning. The online component will be minimal at first but I anticipate that changing after March.

I’ll have new stories appearing at Fast Company in February and March, and my Tribune column will continue to appear monthly as well. I may Tweet occasionally. There are some ongoing updates and improvements to the EdupunksGuide.org website, and the DIY U self-learning online community “course” will be running better than ever with new facilitators at P2PU.org –updates to that coming soon. If you’re interested in having me come speak somewhere after April 2012 contact Dustin Jones at Keppler Speakers.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to everyone!!


I have a piece in the Winter issue of GOOD Magazine about Dennis Littky’s work with College Unbound. I wrote about College Unbound briefly in DIY U and I’ve followed his work closely since them. I am impressed as hell with what they are doing.

Over the past two years, Littky has launched College Unbound as a prototype for how higher learning can cater to kids, instead of the other way around. Students live in small, tight-knit communities, work one-on-one with advisers to fashion individualized learning plans built around a job or internship that speaks to a personal passion, pursue independent research related to their fields, and cover the humanities and math together in seminars. It’s an update of the educational model Littky has been refining over three decades…

Littky’s artisanal, hands-on approach—he often uses the slogan “one student at a time”—flies in the face of the prevailing vision for education reform. Typified by Khan Academy’s short math videos and adaptive learning software, which were lauded by Bill Gates himself from the TED Conference stage this year, the new model calls for cutting-edge technology, millions of users, and massive amounts of automatically generated data on student outcomes.

UPDATE: I am beyond thrilled with the two individuals who have presented themselves to help out with this course. You will be in good hands if you want to participate–I am excited to see what they come up with!

I’m going on maternity leave in about a month. I’d love to find someone to take over the next round of our course on P2Pu.org.You’ll be partnering with the awesome Alison Cole.

Basically this is a group of people from all over the world interested in self-learning. New people are signing up every couple of days. They are working on the tasks found in the Tutorials section of the Edupunks Guide: writing and posting personal learning plans, trying to build their learning networks and find mentors.

This is like a community manager job where your job is to engage with and encourage people interested in pursuing their own independent paths. Get them to talk to each other and to offer feedback and help point them to other useful resources. We’ve tried posting videos and screencasts and scheduling Skype calls as a way to make the group more interactive.

This is for people really interested in online and self-directed learning, but you don’t have to be experienced. P2Pu is an awesome community that is actively building, updating and experimenting with their platform for self-organized learning.

Time commitment is only a few hours a week for up to 12 weeks, whatever you feel like you can do.

send me an email at DIYUBook@gmail.com if you want to try it!

Occupy and Student Loan Debt

November 6, 2011

I spoke about student debt on the “human mic” at Occupy Washington Square Park, described in the Village Voice as “a smaller group autonomous of, but loosely affiliated with” #ows. They’ve been having general assemblies, working groups, and speakers including Angela Davis and Judith Butler. Most students have seeked the help of https://www.sofi.com/private-student-loans/graduate-loans/ to pay off their debt.

Here’s a video.

An NYU professor, Andrew Ross, who also spoke, is affiliated with organizing the occupy student debt working group. One proposal they’re knocking around is a “debt refusal” campaign–get 1 million people to sign on and then all stop paying their loans.

It’s an intriguing idea that I haven’t heard before. People who can’t pay back their loans are in a pretty rough spot as individuals, but then again, it’s no guarantee that there’d be safety in numbers, either.

Anyway, it was fun speaking for the mic (where the crowd repeats your words every few phrases.) Here’s what I said.

36 million Americans have Student Loan Debt
That’s two-thirds of college graduates
It totals one trillion dollars
that’s more than credit card debt
$27,000 per person
I’ve been writing about this problem
for seven years
Student Loan Debt negates the American dream
We’re told that if we work hard
the smart ones,
the ones that deserve it
will be let through the gates
and into the middle class
but there’s a catch
College tuition has risen
more than any other good or service
In the US Economy
since 1978!

Tuition increases and debt increases
make each other possible.

So what’s to be done?
Number one, Abolition
I think that’s a nonstarter politically on its own
you have to admit that American college students
are a privileged part of the 99 percent
But if you call for a general amnesty
On all kinds of debt
A bailout for the 99 percent
I think it makes sense morally
And even economically
Number 2, direct action
You can just stop paying your loans
I know people who have done it
You will never have credit
You will never have assets in your name
You will never go back to school
But the good news is
They can’t repossess your brain
Number 3, Bankruptcy protection
For both private and federal loans
This is very very important
It’s been shot down several times
In the past few years
But there are bills right now
In the House and Senate
And now’s a good time to call for it

Number 4, this is the most important
Attack the source
which is the cost of higher education
My last two books
and the free Edupunks Guide
are about self-organized peer to peer forms of learning
often using open digital resources
that are free or very cheap
I see the Occupy movement
And this event this afternoon
as an example of self-organized education
I think everyone has the power
to take control of your own learning
and provide an alternative
that puts the institutions on notice
that they must lower their costs
Because education is a human right.