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Artisanal U.: The Radical Potential of College Without the Classroom

Posted on Monday, December 5th, 2011 at 2:05 am by Anya Kamenetz

From GOOD magazine. Published December 2, 2011.

Joyce Alcantara grew up in Rhode Island with her mom, three sisters, two nieces, and a cousin. Her dad, incarcerated in Florida, isn’t really a part of her life. Alcantara had trouble with classes her senior year in high school and almost dropped out; her saving grace was a strong interest in social work and clinical psychology, fostered by an internship at a family services drop-in center. This fall, she started her freshman year at Southern New Hampshire University as part of a new program called College Unbound. “I have made the best with what I have. If not for the struggles, if not for the hardship, I would not be as strong as I am today,” she wrote in her application. But even with all she has going for her, even after beating the odds just to get her high school diploma, a student like Alcantara, the first in her family to go to college, has only an 11 percent chance of graduating.

Dennis Littky thinks that’s not good enough. “An 89 percent dropout rate? That’s absurd. Typically we blame the students, but it may not be all the students’ fault— it may be the colleges’ fault,” he says. “Colleges have to be student-ready rather than students just being college-ready.”

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, tailored to meet the needs of college students like Joyce Alcantara. Yet despite his track record of success with the nation’s toughest learners, funders have balked.

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. “Everybody wants to see the numbers, everyone wants results and they want them now,” says Ray McNulty, a former senior fellow at the Gates Foundation who has followed Littky’s career for 15 years. (Full disclosure: I received funding from the Gates Foundation for my latest book.)

A perpetual risk-taker, Littky is entering a whole new realm of education, about which he admits he’s “naive.” In the middle of a historic recession, he’s committed significant resources from his own foundation toward a new, untested model, and he’s fine-tuning and redesigning the car while it’s on the road.

Littky’s trying to scale up his model fast enough to prove its merits, incorporate technology, and start generating the kind of results that can convince big donors while making it financially sustainable. Even more importantly, he’s put his legacy on the line: his core belief that you can transform the lives of students like Alcantara by connecting to their passions. “Everything we’ve done has been learning and leading up to this,” he says.

Anya Kamenetz first encountered College Unbound while researching her book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Read the rest of the article over at GOOD.


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