Why Libraries And MOOCs Won’t Replace Liberal Arts Degrees

By Hannah Smith

When I first heard about the ease of obtaining an education from an Ivy League university with little to no expense online, I had a twinge of resentment toward my soon-to-be-acquired liberal arts degree. I had a similar feeling when I first heard Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting proclaim: You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library!”

But in hindsight, I don’t think this resentment and concern was well founded—in either case. While this new academic approach will no doubt change the world of higher education — and probably for the better — it will not replace schools like the one that I attend. While I do see the use of online education expanding in the near future, I don’t think it will precipitate the downfall of small and private universities.

My school is tiny. The total number of students barely exceeds 500. The class sizes are small. Students and professors know each other by name. Campus-wide inside jokes are, perhaps pathetically, the norm. In many ways, it is the opposite of the 30,000-student online classroom at Harvard.

My school prides itself on going beyond merely depositing knowledge; professors strive to craft the way that we argue, whether or not they agree with what we believe. Leaders teach us how to question the outside world but also those in our inner circles. The goal is to teach us how to reason, even if that means we might ultimately disagree with the principles taught by a given professor. This is not always the case, of course, but it is the ideal.

The common worry is that the expansion of the online classroom would lead to the ultimate decimation of such ideals. But I think we are often asking the wrong questions on this matter. Will the use of online education become increasingly widespread in the coming years? Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t we use the Internet to educate people? But will it replace the small classroom settings so adored by my professors and classmates? Probably not. It may replace lecture halls and various forms of self-education, but I don’t see a disintegration of the market for small schools merely because of the development of accredited online education of a much higher caliber (in the form of MOOCs and state universities online) than we have seen in the past (in the form of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit institutions that skimp on full-time faculty, libraries and student services).

The biggest change we will likely see is the democratization of higher education. With the average private college tuition according to College Board at $32,405 a year and public college at $9,410, college has long been out of the picture for many. The demand for a more affordable means of obtaining a college degree is growing, and the best way to do that without a large government expense seems to be through online education.

Online classes erase the professor-student relationship and move past discussion to the mere sharing of information. While it is not the ideal, just as reading a book does not replace going to class, it offers an alternative to simply giving up on college because one doesn’t fancy the idea of being drowned in debt as a 22 year old. The primary market for this new education path will likely be the 67 percent of Americans, according to Census, in their upper 20s who do not have a college degree, and those much older who have spare time and wish to grow their knowledge on a particular subject.

The online era will not cause the extinction of the classroom and of quality, liberal arts institutions. Rather, it will expand the accessibility of higher education in an affordable way.

Hannah Smith is a recent graduate of The King’s College in New York City, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics. She wrote this for an in-class essay contest.

Undergraduate Essay: Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Digital Age?

By Caroline McNair

We’ve heard about the dangers of the Internet so much it’s beginning to sound like a broken record: it’s a mecca for pornography, a catalyst for narcissism and an invasion of our privacy.

Despite the big bad threats of the digital age, the Internet is also being used as a tool for education, to the displeasure and distress of many. This raises the question: why are we so afraid of technology intermixing with education? Prior generations used typewriters to write all of their academic papers, or wrote their assignments using paper and pen. Word processing allows for more prolific writing and makes the editing process more efficient. E-readers allow us to use books in different ways; highlighting, making notes and searching for a particular place more quickly and neatly. Despite all of the alarm bells, we see benefits to the Internet in academia.

According to EdSurge.com, a website giving information about technology in education, the number of universities across the United States offering some kind of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) doubled over the course of 2014 to more than 400 total, including 22 of the top 25 universities in the country. The primary reason for disapproval seems to be motivated by fear—a fear of change and what it means. Nathan Heller’s piece in The New Yorker, “Laptop U,” expresses these fears in the voice of people like social scientist Gary King, who is concerned about the depersonalization of education and the conglomeration of learning by organizations like The University of Phoenix. He also fears the use of prospective students as subjects of a “randomized experiment” as they are amalgamated into a large pool of data collected over time (which the internet makes free and accessible).

If education is about knowledge and knowledge is fostered through dialogue, doesn’t the mass proliferation of knowledge through the internet accomplish this? According to EdSurge, much of the learning that MOOC seekers are searching for is in the humanities, computer science, language, and business management courses. These people are looking to potentially acquire knowledge to improve their job performance or satisfy a personal curiosity.

It is important to make the distinction between learning and earning a degree. The Internet is a tool, just like a sharp kitchen knife—it can be used skillfully to prepare a meal or if one is not careful it can cut off one’s finger. With regard to higher education, the Internet has surely made changes and will continue to make them. But an internet education will not replace the prestige and credibility attached to degrees from an accredited institution.

In Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s character Gil Pender is transported back in time to experience the city in the 1920s, his favorite decade. He has a deep longing for the past, believing it to be a more romantic, creative, and overall happier place. However, as he comes to know a woman of the inner circle of artistic genius, (including Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Picasso) he learns that she also yearns for a different better time: the 1890s. Pender realizes that disillusionment with the time in which one lives is not an objective measure of the time itself, rather a subjective dissatisfaction.

There’s a word for romanticizing the past: nostalgia. But is nostalgia a good enough reason to fear the change in higher education caused by the internet? Before the worldwide web was even a thought books were the primary resource for learning. Before the printing press, books and even literacy itself was a highly prized commodity. If we long for old methods for the sake of old methods, we are subject to an infinite regress that robs us of an educated and moral society at all. If we are truly an egalitarian (and entrepreneurial) society, we cannot fear the proliferation of knowledge—instead, we ought to rejoice.

Improvements in technology might not make higher education more robust. But those pursuing free online coursework are not earning credit toward an actual degree. The motive for taking such a course is not for the betterment of credentials—rather it is the desire for personal fulfillment and betterment. The internet has undoubtedly had a sociological effect—it’s changed everything. However, when it comes to change, the Old Guard has a tendency to work itself into a tizzy. We should relax and allow progress to settle before we jump to conclusions.

Caroline McNair is a senior at The King’s College in NYC studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She wrote this for an in-class essay contest.

Teaching At A Distance: An Optimistic Remake Of The Higher Education Landscape

By Hannah Grubb

More than 21 million students who enrolled in distance education courses have traded in loose-leaf paper for digital assignments, rendering the “QWERTY” keyboard a compass for class participation and penmanship nothing more than a lost art.

Who do these students have to thank? Extra credit goes to the pioneers of the MOOC—or “massive open online courses”—movement, facilitators of education who most likely obtained their own at a time when technology in school meant the occasional guest appearance of a slide projector. But experience shows us that many colleges – including The King’s College in New York City, where I study — are moving more slowly with online learning, creating pathways from online to brick and mortar education options.

When MOOC providers such as edX and Coursera went mainstream half a decade ago, they came as an answered prayer to students seeking an affordable education. The free online model promised to stem the tide of student debt amassing as a result of the surging costs of higher education. But when for-profit institutions like Walden University and the University of Phoenix followed suit in adopting the online model, a study by the Center for American Progress found that these colleges accounted for nearly half of all student loan defaults in the United States, swindling online graduate students—who are often easily-targeted low-income individuals—into loans of up to $50,000.

Yet online education has benefits. The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed learning institutions about online enrollment for the first time in 2012, reporting that 35 percent of students who learn exclusively in distance courses are enrolled in for-profit institutions, whereas only 5 percent of students who are educated in some but not all distance courses are enrolled in for-profit institutions. According to a report by Babson Survey Research Group, which partners with College Board, “The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those as in face-to-face instruction, grew from 57% in 2003 to 74% in 2013.”

We cannot ignore these statistics. Together, they tell us that students today have the opportunity for significant gains from online learning. Furthermore, students who use online courses as supplementary material benefit from distance learning without the mountain of debt that burden many online students who are full time. It is vital that more nonprofit universities take note of this information and strategize with MOOC providers to meet the demands for online learning in an ethical and productive manner.

In an article published by non-profit organization Educause, Henry C. Lucas Jr. proposes a counterattack for the survival of the MOOC model. He states, “Institutions need to compete by providing a variety of ways for students to participate in programs, from online and blended courses and degrees to MOOCs.” The “massive open online” framework cuts the costs of education by a landslide, demanding less time and fewer resources of the teacher per student. Additionally, the tremendous scope of students who can be reached across these online courses increases the cost-effectiveness of each lecture. Lucas notes, “The college or university will want to produce and market its own MOOCs and allow students to take proctored MOOCs from other institutions as a part of their programs of study.” Students can predict positive changes in the learning landscape if they are met with such provisions for fast-changing technology and non-traditional learning platforms.

Just as the community college provides the foundation for many students who wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree, an online program can give the same boost a student needs to transfer their studies to a four-year institution. This is a simple hack of the higher education model that could improve options for students.

The King’s College in New York City offers students the chance to begin their education through the “Becoming King’s” online program, and in doing so save approximately $22,000 during their first year of college. The program allows dual-enrollment students in high school to start earning college credit before they move to New York for full-time classes at King’s. It also allows other students to take online classes while they work at home for a time, before they move to New York to start classes.

By designing an online course-map for students who intend to complete their degrees on campus, institutions like The King’s College attract those who are frugal, diligent, and who are all-around some of the best prospects for making the most of their education.

Hannah Grubb is an undergraduate student at The King’s College in New York City. She wrote this OpEd as part of an essay contest for a Persuasive Writing & Speaking course at the college.

Columnist Ryan Craig On Frack.U from Galvanize To General Assembly To Coursera

By Ryan Craig

I attended law school when cable television exploded from 50 channels to 500. As law school was pass/fail, we had a lot of time to keep an eye on the new niche channels appearing seemingly weekly. My roommate Dave and I began keeping a list of new channels we half expected to see. The top 10 were:

  1. Food Court TV (a spinoff of then popular Court TV)
  2. The Conspiracy Channel
  3. The Post Office Channel
  4. Yarn Channel
  5. The Autopsy Channel
  6. The Highway Building Channel
  7. The Shower Channel
  8. Life After Death Channel
  9. The Cotton Candy Channel
  10. The Channel Surfing Channel, so you don’t have to take the trouble to surf yourself.

While none of these came into being (to my knowledge), audiences were fracturing then and continue to fracture today. Aside from our collective love of the NFL, some in the TV business wonder whether “mainstream” programming still exists.

Perhaps higher education should be concerned with the same phenomenon. While we’ve always had trade or specialty schools, the attention being paid to coding boot camps by the media and government makes me wonder whether we’ll begin to see public- and Department of Education-sanctioned purpose-built institutions for every industry e.g., watchmaking.

If so, perhaps some higher education wildcatter will name his or her new Texas- or North Dakota-based school “Frack U.” This would be appropriate, because the fracturing (or fracking) of higher ed. is being driven by two distinct groups saying “Frack U” to mainstream colleges and universities.

The first group is students, who are increasingly unhappy with the status quo. In a Gallup-Purdue survey released last week, only half of 30k college alumni strongly agreed that their higher education investment was a good one. Not surprisingly, the number was significantly lower (38%) amongst alumni who’ve graduated in the past decade. One interesting footnote in the survey: participation in an internship as part of a degree program materially increased satisfaction while conducting a research project with a professor did not. The Gallup executive responsible for the poll sounded the alarm: “If we don’t figure out how to improve [the] value proposition, the great tidal wave of demand for higher education in the U.S. could easily come crashing down on us.” Certainly, the federal government is listening. This week Secretary of Labor Tom Perez told CNN: “Apprenticeship is the other college, except without the debt.”

Second, employers are also saying “Frack U” to mainstream colleges and universities. While employers expressing dissatisfaction with employment preparedness of college graduates isn’t news, some leading employers are starting to do something about it. Following an internal Ernst & Young UK study demonstrating that degrees had no correlation to job performance, college degrees will henceforth be disregarded in that firm’s hiring process. Google, America’s second-most admired company according to most surveys, is America’s most outspoken company on this issue. Its Senior VP of People Operations has said that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.” Google has partnered with both Udacity and Coursera in an attempt to develop and deliver shorter, less expensive credentials and now bases its own candidate evaluations on highly predictive custom-developed assessments.


Is all this fracking an existential threat? Are we likely to see the unbundling of the university not only in terms of product (i.e., degrees), but also in terms of specializations? Are multidisciplinary universities sitting on shaky shale?

To answer this question, let’s go back to TV for a moment. The 500 channel universe always seemed unnavigable and unknowable to me until my wife subscribed to Netflix. Netflix disintermediates channels and provides a simple elegant interface to establish a direct relationship with content, and then to find similar content. Suddenly, I’m no longer frustrated by TV (a good thing, since my wife is a TV writer/producer). However, I am frustrated that there isn’t a Netflix interface in other areas of life (like for being a parent).

Another area in desperate need of an updated interface is higher education. I think a lot of the fracking from students and employers comes from a newly developed (and correct) sense that it should be easy to navigate data-rich environments. Higher education is exceedingly data rich, but students and employers are accessing it through the same interfaces as prior generations. Our frustration with higher education is high because our frustration tolerance has declined.

So when General Assembly or Galvanize opens a sleek and modern campus in town with a discrete set of short, accessible programs leading to well-paid jobs (and with no Title IV financial aid), it’s a simple interface that allows students and employers to establish a direct relationship with education. Therefore it’s attractive – and it’s attractive to believe that specialized schools (not multidisciplinary universities) represent the future of all of higher education.

But that would be mistaking the symptom for the disease. My diagnosis is that while the huge advantages to students and employers of combining disciplines are likely to increase over time, higher education remains the most complex product purportedly designed for mass consumption. Not that it shouldn’t be hard to complete a higher education program; that should require creativity and rigor. But it shouldn’t be hard to figure out what to learn and how that learning is or isn’t connected to adjacent topics and disciplines, or to future education or employment opportunities. And the transaction costs involved in starting to learn should be more like walking into the café at the front of a Galvanize campus, and less like doing your taxes.

Some of these interfaces will sit atop what universities are already doing e.g., competency marketplaces and ePortfolios where algorithms parse, extract and match competencies from student work and employer job descriptions. But probably most important to the higher education enterprise is allowing students and employers to interact intelligently with curricular metadata. As this ostensibly requires institutions to organize curriculum in a uniform, coherent and intelligible way, I see three potential outcomes: (1) Colleges and universities upend curriculum development and management practices and force faculty to recreate courses using a standard set of tools, which export searchable, manipulable metadata; (2) Some genius develops a product that utilizes big data technology to sift through disorganized, incoherent curricular materials and provides a simple interface for students and employers to engage directly and meaningfully with curriculum for planning; (3) Neither of the above.

Knowing what I know about higher education and inertia (old friends, these two), I don’t think it’s likely to be #1. So I’m hoping it’s #2 (and that it’s one of our portfolio companies). If not, option #3 could mean colleges and universities are fracked.

While specialty “just-in-time” institutions work extremely well in IT and probably make sense in select other sectors as well, the demise of the multidisciplinary university and the rise of the college equivalent of the Cotton Candy Channel won’t do much to advance knowledge or citizenship. So let’s hope we get this right. Or we could all be fracked.

Ryan Craig is a Partner at University Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

New Pell Grant Study of 1,149 Schools Shows Low-Income Student Graduation Rates Lag More Affluent Peers



A new study adds to a body of evidence that low-income students graduate college at lower rates than their more affluent classmates.

But the report argues that this has more to do with what schools the students go to than any disadvantage springing from their socioeconomic status.

Education Trust, a Washington-based education advocacy organization, collected the graduation rate of Pell grant recipients from 1,149 of public and nonprofit four-year colleges and university – a sample covering nearly 85 percent of first-time, full-time Pell students. The vast majority of these grants, of up to $5,775 per year, go to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year.

The study found that Pell recipients had a six-year graduation rate of 51 percent in 2013 compared to 65 percent for non-Pell students.

But the study found that the average was being dragged down by institutions from which few students ever graduate. If they are taken out of the sample, the difference between the percentage of Pell students and other students who graduate narrows to less than 6 percent, it says.

“Even if all institutional-level gaps in completion between Pell and non-Pell students were eliminated, there would still be a considerable national gap because too many Pell students attend institutions where few students of any sort graduate.”

Related: A ‘promising’ way to help low-income students to through college

Pell grants are the U.S. Department of Education’s largest single expenditure, making up $31.5 billion of its budget in 2013-14. Because of a quirk in federal policy, there is very little accountability for this money, however; schools must provide their Pell student graduation rates to any prospective applicant who asks, but are not required to report this information to the Department of Education.

The Hechinger analysis found wide variation in gaps among schools. The Education Trust report also found that 22 percent of institutions had no gap at all between the two groups or that the Pell students even fared better. But 20 percent still had a gap of at least 12 percentage points.

Sometimes similar institutions had significantly different outcomes. Two schools in the State University of New York system, for example – SUNY College at Oswego and SUNY College at Brockport—both have similar enrollments, median SAT scores and Pell recipient enrollment rates. But Pell students at Oswego had a graduation rate of 48 percent, compared to 66 percent at Brockport.*

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

This report comes on the heels of the long-anticipated release of the Obama Administration’s College Scorecard, which includes school-level statistics such as students’ average debt. It also includes Pell Grant graduation rates, but the data are limited and may miss students.

As a result, the push for the government to require schools to report these figures continues.

The Education Trust report concludes: “Without the collection and publication of these data, we do not have a clear understanding of the performance and ultimate success of Pell grant students. Because the government is making a significant investment by disseminating these grants to students who need them most, it should ensure there is follow-through from institutions.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Guest Columnist, Ryan Craig

Columnist Ryan Craig: You Say You Want A Revolution? Just In Time Goes To College

By Ryan Craig

The trope of overlooking the hero based on appearances goes back as long as stories have been told. In the Bible, King David, the youngest and least impressive of his 7 brothers, was relegated to the fields to look after goats and sheep. Samuel thought David’s brother was the impressive one and should be king. But God said: “Don’t judge by his appearance or height. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Height rears its head again in Star Wars when Luke encounters Yoda for the first time:
Yoda: Help you I can. Yes, mmm.
Luke: I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior.
Or maybe that was less about height, more about being green.

Other heroes overlooked for superficial reasons include Superman (bumbling Clark Kent), Rocky (a bum), and Lassie (a dog). And now, in an example of life imitating art, colleges and universities are not just a place to study this trope; they have fallen victim to it. Based on misleading appearances, higher education is paying insufficient attention to alternative “Just-In-Time” providers.


Coding bootcamps – the first manifestation of “Just-In-Time” (JIT) providers – are experiencing remarkable growth. One recent survey projected 138% growth from 6,740 graduates in 2014 to a 16,056 2015 – greater than any other sector or program in postsecondary education. But searches at the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education on market leaders like General Assembly and Galvanize produce articles on the South Carolina General Assembly and confederate flag debate – nothing about coding bootcamps or JIT education. And only one accredited university has seen fit to partner with a JIT provider: University of New Haven’s partnership with Galvanize on an M.S. Engineering in Big Data.

If colleges and universities expect they’ll be selling as many degrees a decade from now, they should take a look at what’s happened in the software business. Enterprise software was often called “bloatware” by its detractors because it included so many functions that customers rarely used and came with a big price tag for a one-time purchase, followed by annual maintenance fees. Degree programs are the higher education equivalent of enterprise software: a big price tag for a one-time purchase, followed by annual alumni contributions. Enterprise software is dying as leading software companies have shifted to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) models that allow customers to rent software per user per month and pay only for the functions that they need. JIT providers are doing exactly this: shifting from the bloated degree model to an“Education-as-a-Service” (EaaS) model. JIT sells students what they need when they need it. Just as the goal of SaaS companies is to win and profit from customers for life, JIT providers aim to serve their students for life, providing a range of programs and credentials as students’ needs evolve over time.

Rather than focusing on the big picture, colleges and universities are overlooking JIT for three superficial reasons:
1. All the successful examples of JIT are coding bootcamps, ergo the trend doesn’t extend beyond coding.
2. JIT is new version of “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) education. As DIY hasn’t had any impact, we have nothing to worry about.
3. These programs aren’t alternatives to colleges and universities, but rather “Top-Up” programs for students who’ve already earned bachelor’s degrees.

We’re already seeing examples of JIT programs that demonstrate how flawed these assumptions are. Take YearUp, for example. YearUp is Boston-based not-for-profit that provides JIT pathways to a professional career for underprivileged students. The program combines 21-week educational programs in several functional areas – IT, operations and finance, sales and marketing, and customer service – with a 26-week internship at employer partners. All programs involve IT to some degree, but are not limited to coding. Moreover, YearUp is about as far as you can get from a DIY program; the 26-week internship is guaranteed if students complete the educational program, students receive a stipend for living expenses and are on a strict behavioral contract (with meaningful attrition during the 21-week program). And YearUp is definitely not a “Top-Up” program for students who’ve already earned degrees. The program serves students who otherwise can’t access or are unlikely to succeed at traditional colleges. Now in 14 cities, YearUp serves over 2,500 students each year and 85% of alumni are either employed or in college within 4 months of completing the program: placement rates that are much closer to JIT “Top-Up” programs for graduates of elite colleges than community colleges that serve other low-income students.

There is one, non-superficial reason why colleges and universities might dismiss JIT as a flash in the pan: lack of breadth of the educational program. Like the German vocational/apprenticeship model, or – closer to the U.S. model of higher education – the English university model, students specialize immediately. JIT has no time for general education, let alone distributional requirements. While any impact on quality of life, citizenship and civility remains unclear, evidence seems to indicate that students are unlikely to be worse off economically from early specialization. University of Chicago economist Ofer Malamud developed a longitudinal model comparing outcomes for English (early specialization) and Scottish university students and found that while early specialization is associated with more costly switches upon entering the labor market, differences in wages or employee satisfaction do not persist over time. And with regard to non-economic factors, if JIT providers primarily serve the 46% of students enrolling in but not completing degree programs, any non-economic impact is likely to be positive.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is well ahead of our colleges and universities in recognizing the potential of JIT. As the Chronicle has reported, ED is now considering a pilot for universities to partner with JIT providers, allowing Title IV financing for select JIT programs. Based on a recent experience moderating a panel discussion at a conference, where the two participating JIT providers indicated they preferred serving students who already had (expensive) degrees, ED is absolutely right in believing that availability of Title IV funding is key to not only making JIT an affordable alternative for students, but also to opening the eyes of JIT providers that they can be a lot more than “Top-Up” programs for graduates from elite colleges.

Once ED announces this demonstration project, higher education institutions should pay a lot more attention. That’s good, because we need them to solve one real (not superficial) limitation on the JIT model: the lack of a recognized credential. While some JIT providers publicly state that “the credential is the job,” that’s insufficient in a labor market where degrees remain the reserve currency. A much better response is to do the work of articulating JIT programs to recognized credentials, as Lumina Foundation is attempting. When asked by an employer what a JIT course means, much better to say you’re ¼ through a bachelor’s degree program at a recognized higher education institution. By insisting that JIT providers partner with Title IV-eligible institutions, this should be one outcome of ED’s demonstration project.


JIT has tremendous potential to improve our system of higher education. It improves employer engagement and reduces time and cost to completion (therefore materially improving completion rates).

It also opens up the door to a new revenue model. Remember the great line from The Blues Brothers: “We got both kinds [of music]. We got country AND western.” In the same vein, college and universities “got both kinds” of revenue: tuition AND fees. Unfortunately, both come from the same source: students. JIT providers like YearUp are already generating revenue from a completely different source: employers. YearUp does not charge tuition to students. The entire program is paid for by employers. Most employers are happy to pay for placement if they can be certain they’re hiring qualified employees trained to be productive from day one. In helping to open up this important new revenue stream for colleges and universities, JIT will go a long way to helping to end the stifling and unproductive isomorphism that afflicts our colleges and universities.

If JIT is able to accomplish any of this – let alone all of the above – it will be a true hero: greater than Yoda, Superman, Rocky or even Lassie.

Ryan Craig is a Partner at University Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

Columnist Ryan Craig: Blue Beads And Yale University

By Ryan Craig
Q. How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Change? Change? Who said anything about CHANGE??

In early September 1993, new Yale President Rick Levin gave his first welcoming address to matriculating freshmen – Yale College’s class of 1997. According to tradition, following the address the President situated himself outside Woolsey Hall in the Rotunda and the freshmen would shake his hand upon exiting.

My roommates, my brother Aaron and I decided it was important to provide a special greeting to President Levin and the freshmen. So we sourced 1,500 large blue beads and printed up small cards on thick card stock. The cards had the Yale shield (“Lux et Veritas”) up top and read as follows:

Dear Freshman: For nearly a century, following the Welcoming Address, members of the incoming class have participated in the tradition of meeting the President and passing a small wooden Yale-blue bead into the President’s palm when shaking his hand. At the time of your graduation, you will again receive one of the beads exchanged today (perhaps the one you yourself passed to the President) as a reminder of the day you began your Bright College Years.

The beads themselves were Yale-blue. That took hours of calls and visits with nice older ladies at Connecticut sewing supply stores.

After the speech we positioned ourselves outside the hall and yelled over the din: “Be sure not to leave without your bead. You cannot greet the President without a blue bead.” Numbers of panic-stricken freshmen lost their place in the line as they realized they had not received beads.

Back in the hall, a surprised President Levin moved quickly to problem-solving mode – handing the beads to then Dean (now Duke University President) Richard Brodhead for placement in an ever-increasing series of cups, vessels and eventually fish tanks. Levin’s daughters played with the beads for a time. They next appeared in the spring of 1997 at a graduation reception for that class where a sign read, “Come Retrieve Your Blue Bead.” The beads became a running joke in the early years of the Levin Presidency.

This prank demonstrates the power of tradition in higher education and explains why employers continue to look at degrees as the primary basis for hiring. Don’t try to go against the grain when it has always been thus. This is why University Ventures’ motto is “Innovation from within.” Waiting on any other kind of innovation in higher education is about as much fun as seeing how high you can count.


We’re going to see how fun this actually is. A number of would-be disruptors to the higher education status quo have started to count and have ample capital to go on for some time. Companies like General Assembly (onground), Udacity (online) and Coursera (online and now headed by the same Rick Levin) are going against the grain of the degree by offering just-in-time higher education, not in the form of a degree (and in some cases, not from an accredited university), in areas of demand, primarily high-end information technology. Udacity calls its credentials “nanodegrees.” Coursera’s are “specializations.” General Assembly says the credential is the job itself. The million-dollar question is how long it will take for employers to recognize the value of these novel, non-degree credentials. (And if the student’s first employer understands it, will the second or third?) Or will employers simply continue to require degrees because this is the way it’s always been.

Recent studies show that degrees will be hard to shake. As is often the case in higher education, while Silicon Valley companies get the attention, fundamental changes are happening on the ground at accredited institutions like community colleges. From 2000 to 2010, the number of short-term (< 1 year) certificates awarded grew 151%. New certificate programs are being offered in areas of high demand like information technology, health care, energy, and advanced manufacturing.

Unfortunately, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and the Career Ladders Project, an initiative of the Board of Governors of the California Community College, these novel credentials don’t seem to help students get jobs or make more money. The study, titled Labor Market Returns to Sub-Baccalaureate Credentials: How Much Does a Community College Degree or Certificate Pay followed first-time college students from Washington State community colleges for seven years and compared students who earned short-term certificates with students who dropped out. The researchers found no difference in placement rates or income. In fact, at the end of the tracking period dropouts were earning more than those with certificates. Similar findings have been reported in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. The authors concluded: “Although we would not go as far as to say that short-term certificates never have any value, the evidence is suggestive that they tend to have minimal value over and above attending college and earning some credits.”

There are two possible explanations: (1) Students aren’t learning anything of value in these short programs; or (2) Employers don’t know how to value these novel credentials. (Hint: one is far more plausible than the other.)


Employers are right to be skeptical of novel credentials. When a five-year-old boy in the UK can pass the Microsoft Certified Professional exam and become an “MCP,” the emerging certificate-badge industrial complex is called into question. (To their credit, the good people at the testing center were concerned he was too young.)

As the blue beads prank showed, when you’re trying to get someone to believe something in new in education, appeal to tradition. The exception is likely in IT. And even there, the students enrolling en masse in coding boot camps – a new model that will probably exceed $1B in revenue in a few years – are pairing novel credentials with traditional ones. Nearly all students enrolling in General Assembly and other boot camps have already earned degrees. These “top-off” or “add-on” programs are designed for students who already have their (expensive) traditional credential. So while we expect to see rapid growth in new high-end IT credentials, these programs aren’t so much displacing degrees as helping existing degree holders improve the return on their college investment.

Therein lies the chestnut of a great idea: Rather than stacking a novel credential atop a degree, stack novel credentials atop each other to make a degree. Stackable certificates are great, but they have to stack up to something; for the foreseeable future, that something remains a degree. So when the employer asks: “What is this certificate in sequence analysis?” The answer is quick and clear: “It’s a credential I was awarded halfway through my masters degree in bioinformatics.”

This is what General Assembly competitor (and UV portfolio company) Galvanize is doing. In January, Galvanize will launch a masters degree in Big Data at its campus in San Francisco. In time, the company expects to offer other degree programs and will allow students to articulate the novel “gSchool” credentials they might receive from shorter courses into full degrees that are more easily understood by hiring managers. This is the path from “top-off” program to a model that will help transform higher education over the next decade and dramatically improve return on investment for students.

Higher education is a big investment decision. And the prerequisite for a payoff on that investment is that employers understand it. Down the road, that will mean double-click degrees or novel credentials that also permit employers to “double click” in order to view underlying performance and competencies. For now, however, Galvanize’s example of helping employers understand how novel credentials translate into recognized ones is one that should be followed.


In February 2013, over 500 alumni and friends attended a special tribute at the Yale Club of New York City for departing President Rick Levin. At the event, President Levin gave attendees “special blue beads of farewell” along with a card that looked much better than the ones we concocted nearly 20 years earlier:

In his remarks that evening, Levin called the blue beads a “tradition.” As he knows better than anyone, in higher education all it really takes to turn something new into a tradition is to call it one. Levin might do a great deal to advance the cause of novel credentials if he can put this lesson to use at Coursera.

Ryan Craig is a Partner at University Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovation from within higher education. In the past, he founded an education startup, worked in consulting and government roles. He attended Yale University for undergraduate degrees and law school. 

iCivics: Video Games as Middle School Social Studies Curriculum

By Rebecca Calhoun

CHICAGO – Seven million students and 72,000 teachers are using video games in their social studies classrooms-through registration with the non-profit online education project iCivics. According to executive director of iCivics, Louise Dube, fifty percent of middle schools use iCivics to reinforce their civics common core curriculum because “it’s free and will always remain so,” but also because it represents the new frontier in the intersection of technology and learning.

Greg Toppo, the national K-12 education reporter for USA Today and author ofThe Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, said, “When you think about games, you are confronted with the necessity to think about learning.” No matter the subject of a video game, the objective is to figure out a complex situation and improve at something. This model is now used beyond the entertainment sphere. iCivics has over twenty online games and hundreds of accompanying lesson plans curated to curriculum requirements of each state.

Anyone can visit icivics.org for instant access to games and lesson plans. In the game Do I Have a Right? the player runs their own law firm. Students learn about the content of the U.S. Constitution by deciding if, why, and how they can help each client that visits their firm. Examples range from a client that was searched without reason by a cop to a client who wants to knock their neighbor’s house over to expand their backyard. Success in the game is predicated on how well the student knows the rights of American citizens, how well they match citizens with the correct lawyer, and their ability to balance multiple clients at a time. Other game topics include federal, state and local government, citizenship, and international affairs.

Jim Gee, a professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, said these games “revolutionize pedagogy” because they give the learner large amounts of feedback. Throughout iCivics games, the player is informed about the reason behind their error each time they make an incorrect move. These are not Call-of-Duty-type video games. The game interface is less complex, and there is a lot of reading involved as thought bubbles pop up to explain each action and next possible steps.

But many teachers find reasons beyond functionality to use digital technology in the classroom. Nancy Nassr, a middle school digital learning teacher in Chicago, explained that video games in the classroom are about ownership. They implicate the student in what they’re learning and provide them with a robust context in which to understand the information they study—something impossible to do with every student in large classrooms before digital technology.

However, the education is not limited to the game alone. The lesson plans are intended to create probing questions for students before, during, and after the game. “Every lesson should include a debrief,” said Nassr. Student participation leads to ownership of the material; the game is supposed to be a parable that sparks a bigger conversation in the classroom. Nassr also noted that the use of digital learning games has helped her, and other teachers, evoke engagement from students that tend to be apathetic towards the material.

As this new frontier in digital learning presses onward, the question from parents and teachers is: Does it actually work? Don’t our kids spend enough time with their eyes glued to computer screens? A study done by Baylor University on 250 students for The Journal of Social Studies Research, showed that iCivics-using fourth graders scored an average of 10 points higher on civics tests and fifth through eighth graders increased their scores by five points after playing the game. Arizona State University, SRI International and, Tufts University conducted similar studies that found similar results. All studies showed improved test scores and increased confidence in knowledge of the material from students who used iCivics.

While this style of digital learning shows success and potential, a few philosophical questions still remain. Dube said that iCivics games should be evaluated by whether or not they “create the kinds of thinkers we want.” Similarly, Allen Turner, a game designer for ChicagoQuest, said these games are valuable because they “create meaning for the student beyond the information.” But is there a universal understanding or clear vision of the kinds of thinkers we want? Who is the curator of the “meaning” students will engage. (Although, the same question could be asked of textbooks and other older learning methods.)

According to their website, the iCivics mission is: “We envision a nation where all young Americans are prepared for active and intelligent citizenship. To support this vision, iCivics empowers teachers with effective and engaging resources to develop the next generation of citizens.” But the method and practice of using technology in the classroom is still widely debated and rapidly evolving. As of now, there is no clear metric for what kinds of citizens digital learning will produce.

There is also no reliable way of knowing if these students have digested a well-rounded civics education or if they have learned how to beat a game. The team at iCivics would likely posit that the two are intertwined—you’ve digested the information when you’ve won the game. Nassr puts the responsibility with game designers and teachers, saying it’s their job to set clear learning goals from the initial design to the execution and debrief of each game. As digital learning continues to pervade the classroom, teachers, students and parents are learning how to navigate these new initiatives.

Calhoun is a recent graduate of The King’s College in New York City and a contributor to WiredAcademic. She reported this story at the Education Writer’s Association annual meeting in Chicago. 

Hackademia: The Role Of Hacker High Schools, Hackathons & Coding In Higher Ed

By Chris Berdik

Chaitu Dandu is a 16-year-old computer hacker. But he isn’t after your passwords, social security number or credit card information. Neither were the hundreds of other young hackers who converged on a snowy Brown University earlier this month for Hack@Brown, a 24-hour “hackathon.” Dandu is part of a growing trend of high school kids entering the hacker ranks. Plenty of educators say that’s a good thing.

For many people, the word ‘hacker’ conjures up shadowy criminals unleashing malicious cyber attacks. Beyond the headlines, however, there’s a whole world of hacking that has nothing to do with criminality and everything to do with becoming inventive, autonomous and more secure members of a society immersed in technology. Broadly speaking, these young hackers fall into two groups — security hackers, who learn how computer networks can be attacked in order to better defend them, and hackathon hackers, who compete in all-night coding binges to invent new applications and re-engineer hardware.

We need more of both types, desperately. Network security experts say we’re falling behind the criminals. Tech companies, especially startups, can’t find enough talent to expand. America’s K-12 computer science offerings, while improving, are inadequate to the task. While teaching more kids to code is important, advocates for hacking education say it adds a critical mix of ingenuity and improvisation to the technical know-how.

“It’s the hacker mentality,” and technology employers can’t get enough of it, says Glenn Norman, a network security consultant who teaches the subject at the University of New Mexico.

Norman also teaches security hacking to high school students at an after-school club in Albuquerque called Warehouse 508. He’s a co-developer of “Hacker High School,” a nine-lesson curriculum published by the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM), a nonprofit network security consultancy. Access to Hacker High School’s cloud-based lab exercises costs $150, but the lessons themselves are free, and the site gets thousands of visitors every day.

Ava Scherneck, a high school technology teacher in Redlands, California, started using Hacker High School last fall. She downloaded the lessons after attending a cyber security summit. “People from the National Security Agency and Homeland Security were there, begging us to start teaching this stuff in high school,” she says. Globally, about a million network-security jobs can’t be filled because of a lack of qualified people, according to a 2014 report by Cisco Systems.

After Scherneck’s students learn network basics — how they function and where they’re vulnerable — they assume the role of cyber villains and practice their skills at www.hackthissite.org, an open-source security training ground. She also stresses ethics and the law.

“Hackers aren’t bad people,” Scherneck says. “It’s the criminals who know how to hack who are the bad people.”

Hacker High School’s founder, Pete Herzog, managing director at ISECOM, says that despite the curriculum’s popularity, it’s becoming too costly to support and update, and won’t survive much longer without corporate sponsorship.

In another effort to cultivate young hacking talent, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency helped fund computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University who built an online “capture the flag” security game for high school students. To play the game, teams of high-school hackers go after encrypted bits of data (aka “flags”) while solving a mystery. In 2013, the game’s first year, about 2,000 high school teams tried to crack the data locked in an alien robot that crash-landed on Earth. Last year, about 10,000 teams competed to find a missing person using only the clues in a discarded flash drive. The challenges start with simple cyphers and get progressively more difficult and technical. After 10 days of competition, the top three teams win a few thousand dollars, but the games themselves remain online indefinitely.

Competition, plus the thrill of on-the-spot invention, is also why young hackers flock to hackathons. The first (college) student hackathon was in New York City in 2010; dubbed hackNY, it is now an annual event. These days, there are hackathons somewhere nearly every weekend, filled with students making things — usually Web applications, new functions for open-source software or other high-tech gizmos, but not always. Hackathons have also spawned brick-and-mortar creations such as a discreet, wearable breast pumpand an inflatable shower that bare-bones travelers can hook up to a bathroom sink.

One of hackNY’s organizers, Chris Wiggins, is an associate professor of applied physics and mathematics at Columbia University who wanted to give students a taste of the grind, and the exhilaration, of startup culture.

“As a teacher, I used to think a huge part of my job was social engineering to trick people into wanting to learn something,” he says. “And these events are full of students working really hard on things that are technically difficult, and they’re not getting paid.”

As college hackathons proliferated, high school hackers started to filter into the competitions. Soon, they started high-school hackathons. One of the first was held in March, 2014, at Bergen County Academies High School in Hackensack, New Jersey. Jared Zoneraich, now a senior at the school, organized the all-night coding bash (hackBCA) along with other kids he’d met at college hackathons. Four hundred students showed up, and hackBCA II is scheduled for next month. [March] Zoneraich says high-school hackathons encourage newcomers who might be intimidated by college hackers.

“People think programmers are math geeks who sit alone with their computers and don’t talk to anybody,” Zoneraich says. “Hackathons are so important, because they let you know this is fun.”

Back at Brown, Dandu and his team were planning to build software that could control a robotic arm using colors to code for specific movements and tasks. “I’ll probably work all night,” he predicted.

Like most hackathon regulars, Dandu shares his projects online. Some are more useful than others. At his first hackathon, last September, his team tried to transform a remote-control car into a self-driving vehicle that would stream video back to its owner as it drove around.

“Things went awry,” Dandu says. At one o’clock in the morning, they realized it wasn’t going to work. So, they abandoned the idea and instead programmed a prank, hacking an application called Yo whose members ping each other with the word “Yo.” Dandu’s team added push-button Yo spam, which won “funniest hack”.

“You could send 80 yos per minute. We spammed people we know. People spammed each other. It was just crazy.”

According to Herzog, of Hacker High School, even students who don’t go into high-tech careers benefit from a little hacker know-how.

“We want to make kids more than cash cows for the app makers and social networks feeding off their privacy,” he wrote in an email. “We want the next generations to control their future, which is electronics and information. The only way to do that is through education.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

Opinion: MOOCs Are The New Black And Will Affect Higher Education

By Jake Dinsmore

Technology trends in higher education are making on-campus college degrees feel like terrestrial radio stations. We know they’re on their way out of fashion. The question is just how soon.

A world without physical college campuses seems far-fetched, but there are three important reasons why we’re heading that direction. The first is financial disincentive.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board rose 40% at public and 28% at private colleges and universities between 2001 and 2012. Predictably, rising prices have also led to higher debt. The Wall Street Journal reported that the class of 2014 was the most indebted class in history. More than 70% of this year’s bachelor’s degree recipients are leaving school with student loans. Students with loans owe an average of $33,000. That’s more than double the inflation-adjusted average from 1993.

An Introduction to Economics class teaches us that all else being equal, a rise in the price of a good leads to a fall in demand for that good. The demand for a four-year on campus college degree is likely to fall because many students simply can’t afford that experience anymore, and those who put it on credit are being rewarded with an impotent American economy where millions are struggling to pay their mortgages, let alone their student loans.

The rising prices of higher education might feel worth it if the competitive advantage of college was rising with it, but the job market is currently flooded with bachelor’s degrees. A college education doesn’t distinguish us from other entry-level job applicants any more than a high school education distinguished similar applicants 10 years ago. The number of recent college graduates as a percentage of the population has doubled since 1970, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27% of jobs in the U.S. require at least an associate’s degree. In a recent Forbes article, a representative from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity summed it up well, “We have too many college graduates, not too few.”

As the number of college graduates continues to exceed the number of jobs created that require a college degree, those degrees will become less valuable. This will, in turn, erode the incentive for making the significant financial sacrifice that on-campus college degrees have become.

A third reason higher education is moving away from college campuses is the rise of cheaper alternatives in the form of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs began and largely still exist as free, stand alone classes made available by growing companies like Udacity, Coursera, and edX that are partnering with dozens of respected universities including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. MOOC classes are often attended by tens if not hundreds of thousands of students eager for free information. But innovative products that start free and become massively popular don’t often stay free, and recently more and more universities have been offering class credits and even degrees through MOOC classes – at a fraction of the price of on-campus classes. Last year, Georgia Tech launched a 100% MOOC based Master’s program in Computer Science that costs just $7,000 (the on-campus alternative costs $40,000). Similar programs are likely to follow Georgia Tech’s precedent, and the advent of inexpensive MOOC degrees, combined with the rising prices and diminishing returns of on-campus tuition, will almost certainly move higher education away from college campuses and onto the World Wide Web.

Maybe one day, when the current trend in education technology has run its course, in-person classes and on-campus degrees will make a comeback. Maybe in 2050, old-fashioned college graduates will argue that there are intangibles unique to the traditional college experience that simply can’t be replaced on the Internet. But if it does make a comeback, it will be a “vintage” comeback, like vinyl and record players. A loyal few will hold on to the benefits of the good old days, the rest will move on to bigger and better technologies.

Jake Dinsmore is a senior Media, Culture and the Arts major at The King’s College in New York City. He wrote this piece for an in-class essay contest as part of Eng 412: Persuasive Writing & Speaking. 

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