Applied Technology

The recent kerfluffle at the University of Virginia got me thinking more about online education. Supposedly one of the driving issues was the adoption of online courses– key board members wanted UVA to join Harvard, MIT, Stanford, the University of Washington and others in offering MOOCs (massive open online courses). People outside the education world see online education as a way to efficiently deliver the ‘product’– education– while reducing the ‘overhead’– faculty and face to face interaction.

As a former teacher, I have to admit that I’m not as enchanted with this idea as others are. Learning requires more than information. It’s a full-body experience. Think of the last time you had an a-ha moment– there’s a physical rush, isn’t there? And before that moment, there’s lots of brow furrowing and hard thinking and uncertainty and nose wrinkling– all physical experiences. A good teacher doesn’t just evaluate dry test scores to determine whether their students are learning. You are reading body language and picking up non-verbal cues constantly. Turning to online education so emphatically ignores the fact that education is about a lot more than the overhead of teaching. It’s about the experience of learning.

That said, technology definitely has a place in education. Technology provides us with previously unimaginable tools to improve productivity, simplify clerical tasks and make evaluation more transparent. But let’s approach technology’s educational applications with care and thought. It’s not a magic cure all. Humans are still hugely complex and teaching is an art because some parts of it truly are magical (teachers get a rush from students’ a-has, too!). Technology can’t replace personal alchemy. That must remain gloriously, happily inefficient.

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What Innovation in Higher Ed Can Look Like

I found New Charter University through Twitter– they sponsored a tweet about the cost of community college versus the cost of gas. I actually gasped when I saw their website.

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First of all, how great is NEW.edu as a url? Fast. Easy.

But then… The site is simple. Clean. Straightforward. Not glitzy. Not trying to dazzle you with gizmos. Easy to read. Simple to navigate. What you hope your education will be, too.

Their pitch– graduating with a degree from a respected source debt free– is totally current.

Check their highlights:

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Affordable. Easy to understand. Under your control. Under their care.

And then there’s this:

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Want to enroll? They have one click sign up through Facebook & Twitter:

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That’s right. They let you enroll through your Facebook or Twitter account. You can audit as long as you like. Try before you buy– for education. If you decide you like it, you get to keep all of the accumulated work you’ve done.

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That’s one heck of a front door experience.

They’re saying “We’ve been taking notes on what all of those other online educators are doing and here’s how we’re improving on it.” In every possible way.

What makes this innovative? It is a better, theoretically more effective education product than other things currently on the market. It’s taking a concept and tweaking it, improving it. It’s breaking the rules in every possible way, from the website design, which is aggressively plain and non-“collegiate”, to their pricing. It’s creative.

It turns out that New Charter (based in San Francisco) used to be Andrew Jackson University (based in Birmingham, AL). Andrew Jackson had a good reputation in the distance learning sphere. But New Charter adopted a competency based model and decided to change both its name and its physical location (although, as an entirely virtual institution, location isn’t actually that important).

Does this concept do anything to close the skills gap? Doubtful. It’s a consumer-driven model that allows anyone to get the academic bona fides (AA, BA, BS, MBA) that are the keys to the kingdom of stability and prosperity. There is no alignment with what employers need. It’s not a connecting point, which is a crucial role community colleges fill.

It is definitely innovative, however.

I wonder if any of this would be applicable in a brick-and-mortar setting.