It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.

. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.

But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.

We need to . . .  turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?

College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.

Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.

The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.

 Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.

. . .  we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.

The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.

In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.

Colleges greenlight data mining

Data-mining can predict which online students are “green” (likely to pass with a C or better), “yellow” (headed for a D) or “red” (likely to fail). An Arizona community college that’s pioneered online courses is looking for ways to green its students.

At a magnet high school in Florida, students can graduate with college credits and certifications in information technology.

What’s really cool about Khan

Video lessons are the public face of Khan Academy, but the brains of the enterprise is the software that analyzes students’ learning, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Khan Academy’s explicit goal is to teach people fundamental concepts. But in the process, it hopes to break new ground by changing how educators think about teaching, how psychologists think about learning, how employers think about credentialing, and how everybody thinks about the price of a good education.

Registered users watch the videos, which provide short lessons, and solve problems. The exercise platform tracks their efforts.

 “If [a user is] logged in, then we have the entire history of every problem they’ve done, and how long it took them, and how they did,” says Ben Kamens, the lead developer at Khan Academy. “So whenever anybody does a problem, we see whether they got it right or wrong, how many tries it took them, what their guess was, what the problem was, how many hints they used, and how long they took between each hint.”

The Khan engineers are also working to tweak the exercise platform so it does not confuse genuine mastery with “pattern matching” — a method of problem-solving wherein a student mechanically rehashes the steps necessary to solve that type of problem without necessarily grasping, conceptually, what those steps represent.

The goal is to get students to remember how to solve the problem days, weeks and years later. Khan’s team is working on a plan to question students on old problems to analyze how well they “retain their command of different concepts, which in turn would enable them to look back at their original interactions with the concepts and try to spot variables that correlate with long-term retention.”

Sal Khan, who left finance to start his nonprofit, is a critic of buffet-style higher education. A college degree doesn’t guarantee the graduate has mastered his field, Khan said at the Future of State Universities conference in October.

College degrees are “issued by the same institution that is in charge of setting, and enforcing, the standards of that credential,” Khan later complained to Inside Higher Ed, comparing it to investment banks rating their own securities. Credential-granting institutions should be decoupled from teaching institutions, he argued.

In Khan’s ideal world, this would mean an independent third party that tests specific competencies and awards credentials corresponding to knowledge areas in which a student can demonstrate mastery — like the MCAT or standardized tests like a bar exam for calculus, physics, or computer science. “It would be much more useful, speaking as employer, if they show they’re just at the top of the charts on a certain skill set that we really want,” he said.

Reliable, respected certification would be great for independent learners, who may take a few classes on campus, take more classes online, read up on a subject and add on-the-job learning. If they’ve mastered the knowledge and skills, it doesn’t matter how they did it or how long it took.

Colorado students provide free tax help

Colorado community college students can take a class, earn IRS certification in tax preparation, then provide free tax assistance to low- and moderate-income families.

Also on Community College Spotlight: A rural Illinois college is a good return on the taxpayers’ investment, college leaders argue.

Teachers on ed degree's value

Teachers discuss an education degree’s value (or lack thereof) on the NY Times’ Room for Debate blog. From Mark:

I am a 21-year veteran teacher who took a whole boatload of education courses in furtherance of my BA and MS degrees. They were utterly useless. The only thing that actually prepared me for teaching was student teaching. All of the other courses taught theory, but nothing practical.

Mark has mixed feelings on merit pay.

I am a very successful teacher, and parents and students alike have sought me out over my career. I make the same salary as another teacher who does nothing but shows movies in class all day. I spend my summers revising my work, creating new and interesting facets to the course. I make the same as the teacher who spends the summer not thinking one iota about the next school year.

Merit pay has some merit, it encourages certain behaviors and discourages others. What I am afraid of is that it will be used to reward the wrong people. If a teacher is mediocre, it is because they have been allowed to get away with it, their behavior empowered by administration. There is a great deal of cronyism in the business, and it skews the playing field.

A “frustrated early-childhood education teacher” calls for combining “pedagogy and a strong apprenticeship” program. What she doesn’t want is to sit through time-wasting professional development classes, such as a “five-hour session that culminated in making a caterpillar from an egg carton.”

Update: After qualifying for National Board certification, a veteran teacher was told he lacks enough credits for certification, reports WashPost columnist Jay Mathews. One phone call from Mathews got the bureaucrats to decide the teacher, who’s also a lawyer and Army vet, is qualified to teach.

Where do you want to teach?

Check out the Certification Map for information on how to qualify as a teacher in various states, average pay and how teacher pay compares to the average salary in the state.

Certification route doesn’t matter

Alternatively certified elementary teachers are as effective as those who took a traditional path to certification, concludes a Mathematica study for the U.S. Education Department. It didn’t matter whether the teacher prep program required many hours of coursework or just a few: Students’ reading and math scores were the same. However, scores were lower for students whose teachers were taking coursework while teaching.

The study tracked 2,600 students in 63 schools in six states.

Total hours required by alternative certification programs varied by state and ranged from 75 to 795, and by traditional programs, from 240 to 1,380.

. . . Average scores on college entrance exams, selectivity of the college awarding the bachelor’s degree, and level of educational attainment were similar for alternative and traditionally certified teachers.

Alternatively certified teachers were more likely to be black and  less likely to have majored in education.

In U.S. News, Andrew Rotherham wonders why Teach for America is the target of so much vitriol. The young teachers are as good as traditional teachers — and one third stay in the classroom for the long haul, while others bring their classroom experience to other education jobs and endeavors.