Politics and Social Justice Archive

Columbia, Brown, and 15 More Universities Join Coursera’s Free Online Platform

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Coursera, the platform for “massively open online courses” founded by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng of Stanford, announced today that it has doubled its number of university partners. The new roster includes several global institutions.

Since its debut earlier this year, 1.3 million people have signed up for a free six- to ten-week Coursera class, which includes videos, exercises, embedded assessment and a social component delivered through message boards. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how the program works, from Fast Company’s September 2012 feature story about Coursera:

Coursera courses are 6 to 10 weeks long, with an hour or two of videos per week. In addition to the snap quizzes, they feature weekly exercises, ranging from problem sets to spreadsheets to design projects or essays, and sometimes a final project or exam. For all quantitative courses, the platform uses artificial intelligence to evaluate each longer exercise, with instant results. Students can keep trying until they get the right answer. For humanities courses, Coursera is testing a form of peer grading.

Although still exploring business models, the venture-funded company plans to eventually make money through certifications (a path competitor Udacity is already pursuing). The addition of these new partners will give Coursera an advantage in what’s become an increasingly crowded online education market.

Keep reading at Fast Company

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

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

Monday, December 5th, 2011

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.

Why College Is Not A Bubble (Except For The University Of Phoenix)

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The college-is-a-bubble meme just keeps growing. Student-loan debt surpassed credit-card debt for the first time in history last year. Tuition is rising at three times the rate of inflation, and there are growing concerns about the quality of education offered at even our nation’s fanciest schools. Meanwhile, prominent venture capitalist Peter Thiel is paying young entrepreneurs to drop out of school. It’s become more fashionable than ever to equate higher education with homeownership: once a rock-solid piece of the American Dream, now a fool’s bet and a sad reminder of overinflated expectations.

But in reality, demand for an American-style college education, and the long-term value of said degree, is unlikely to decline any time soon. Here’s why:

  1. College degrees are still relatively scarce in the U.S. Less than 30 percent of the population have BAs, and we’re 12th in the world in the rate of young workers that have associate’s degrees or more. President Obama’s goal is to increase the percentage of young people with some kind of postsecondary certification to 60%.
  2. Global demand for education keeps growing–it’s on track to double over the next 10 years, to over 225 million students worldwide. According to UNESCO, India would have to build a new campus every two weeks between now and 2025 just to meet the demand. And the U.S. model is still the most desirable internationally. U.S. private universities are expanding overseas from Abu Dhabi to Singapore to meet this growing global demand.
  3. As Kevin Carey of Education Sector points out in this column, a college degree, unlike a home, is nontransferable. It can’t be flipped. Nor can it be foreclosed on. Student loan borrowers can go into default, which can in extreme cases actually negate the positive salary impact of their degree, but this is still pretty rare.

Of course, there are always going to be outliers who are entrepreneurial enough, creative enough, talented enough, or geeky enough to succeed without a college degree. And the better our economy gets at recognizing that talented tenth, the stronger, more innovative, and flexible we’re going to be. Open education resources like Khan Academy and reputation-based networks like Behance and Github can go a long way toward giving colleges a run for their pricey tuition money, opening up the market for providing both learning and job-market signaling for free or at very affordable prices.

The other place the college-is-a-bubble meme might do some good is in the for-profit education sector. Dogged by persistent allegations of financial fraud and misleading recruitment practices, as well as increasing regulatory pressure from the federal government, the industry, a darling of the venture market just three years ago, has been weathering diving stock prices over the past year. These colleges, which enjoyed a decade of soaring enrollment with little or no oversight into the quality of education they provide, really do deserve the title of subprime.

Numerous studies have shown that higher education gives the biggest edge not to the type of privileged young go-getters that Thiel is recognizing, but to the children of immigrants, or those who are the first in their families to go to college. These are the very students who are more likely to end up at a University of Phoenix, DeVry, or Kaplan. If we question the value of a college degree, it should be on their behalf.

Read the original article at Fast Company.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Top Ways to Save Money at College

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

College tuition at public universities is up 24 percent in just the last five years. With graduation right around the corner, many high school seniors and their families are wondering how they can save on one of the biggest expenses they’ll face. Assuming you’ve already made your choice of colleges, here are some top ways to conserve resources while in school.

1) Limit Loans — and take out the right kind of loans.
Many families still aren’t clear on the distinctions between PLUS loans, subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans and private loans, and most students don’t really know how much they’re borrowing. Subsidized Stafford federal loans are the cheapest money you can get for college, with a 3.4 percent interest rate this year. After that, you should max out unsubsidized Stafford loans, and then parents should look at PLUS loans (where the parent is the borrower) before turning to the most expensive type of loan, the private or alternative student loan. Your college’s financial aid office can help you make sure your financial aid package is the best possible deal. You can appeal a financial aid package, if you have compelling reasons based on your family’s special circumstances.

2) Rethink your budget.
As a rule of thumb, students should not borrow more in student loans than their expected starting salary upon graduation — so, $35,000 for liberal arts-leaning folks, maybe closer to $60,000 for budding engineers. If your bill is going higher than that, it may be time to talk about lifestyle. Do you really need a car, or can you take the bus for a year? Can you get by with a refurbished laptop? You may be required to live on campus the first year, but are there cheaper housing options down the road? Or can you live at home that first year and move to campus later?

3) Get a job.
Some college freshmen are leery of working, but you shouldn’t be, as long as you limit your hours. A 2008 study of the National Survey of Student Engagement found that working more than 20 hours a week was associated with lower grades for first-year students, but working 20 hours or less, as long as it’s on campus, was actually associated with higher grades.

3) Start slow with credit.
In 2004, the last year when the figure was available, the average college student carried a balance of $2,169. In many cases getting a student credit card now requires a parent co-signer. To limit your risk even more, you might consider starting your credit history with a secured credit card. With this kind of card, such as the Open Sky Secured Visa, the charges are backed up by a cash deposit, which may even earn interest. The card will not let you charge more than the amount already in the bank, so you can’t rack up crazy overdraft charges.

4) Graduate on time.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but hear me out. According to the Education Trust, only 57 percent of students who started a four-year college in 2002 had graduated by 2008. In case math’s not your strong suit, that’s six years later — 150 percent of the time allotted. It goes without saying that staying in college past four years will increase your bill considerably.

So what can you do to raise your chances of graduating? Declaring a major early can help, especially at public colleges where classes get crowded. You should also plan on picking up extra credits in the summers, perhaps at cheaper community colleges.

You can compare the four-year graduation rate for your chosen college and other similar schools at http://www.collegeresults.org/.

Read the original post at The Kansas City Star.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Obama’s Lessons for Leadership in A Time of Change

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

The President’s speech to the nation last night was primarily billed as his chance to plead his case to the nation for the ongoing military intervention in Libya. But slipped into his remarks was a primer on 21st century leadership in a time of change, a topic Life in Beta is particularly interested in. Here were Mr. Obama’s take-home messages for any leader:

1) Change comes at you in two main forms: the easy kind, and the hard kind.

The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are exhilarating examples of regime change in the Middle East. Our eight-year struggle in Iraq is quite the opposite. Obama cited both examples as he raised hopes and managed expectations in Libya, making it clear that we’re not pledging a long-term military intervention.

2) Circumstances change. Values don’t.

Obama made a strong humanitarian case for intervention. “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsiblity to act,” he argued.

3) Agility is to your advantage.

Obama pointed out proudly that in the early 90s, when Milosevic was perpetrating genocide in Bosnia, it took President Bill Clinton nearly a year to muster a military response; in the case of Libya, the President’s diplomatic team, headed by Hillary Clinton, formed a coalition and moved to action within 31 days. No doubt social media has helped keep the current Mideast upheaval top of mind for both the public and politicians here at home.

4) Collaboration is the new leadership.

In announcing the turnover of command of the Libyan operation to NATO, Obama articulated a new philosophy of American power: whenever possible, we don’t act alone. We seek to work with allies and use our influence and expertise to help spread our values around the world. “Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well,” Obama said, a statement that’s as true whether you are running a design firm, a large corporation, a university, or a country.

Read the original post at Fast Company.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

My Latest Presentation; A Little Piece in the Times

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

This is the first time I’ve put up a set of slides for DIY U on Slideshare, an omission which obviously violates the principles of intellectual openness that I go around promoting. The reasons I would give for not doing it until now would be the same that any professor would give, I imagine: that the presentation is a work in progress, updated and changed slightly for every speech I give; that nevertheless, for the pieces that stay similar from speech to speech, I don’t want audiences to feel that they’re getting something stale from me; that even though I know audiences are coming to hear me, not a Powerpoint deck, I still worry about diminishing the value of my presentation.

But the arguments for doing it are far more powerful: I can get feedback and improve; It may serve as a form of promotion; and most importantly it gives people who aren’t able to hear me speak the opportunity to see a little bit of what DIY U is about.

Since I haven’t blogged here in a while (i’ve been blogging like crazy at FastCompany.com, first from TED, followed by SXSW) I have another note today: a 300-word statement in the New York Times Room for Debate. The question was: should we focus on career-oriented majors or the liberal arts? My response in part:

…while math, science and engineering are great — and there’s an argument to be made that technological skills constitute a new form of basic literacy for meaningful participation in society — it would be foolish to advocate a single, centrally mandated curriculum as the path to prosperity.

What’s needed most are a set of educational practices — whether in the context of the traditional liberal arts, a technical program, or something in between — that empower students to seek knowledge independently, to collaborate, follow their passions and to connect their knowledge with the real world.

Amusingly, originally the editor got back to me and said “We took off the last graf because it seemed like a diversion into a different topic.” I wrote back, via my phone, and said “My comments stand as a whole. You asked what people should study–liberal arts vs. technical subjects. My answer is that it’s more important HOW we study than WHAT we study.”

I’m glad they decided to run it as I wrote it.

Read the original post at DIYUBook.com.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

The Case for Generosity

Monday, February 14th, 2011

A few years ago, I was living in a converted glove factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One day, a large package came in the mail. It was from a pharmaceutical company and addressed to a nonexistent doctor’s office in the building. After the box had been sitting in the hallway for a few days, I Googled the name of the physician and called her office, which was in another part of Brooklyn. When I told the receptionist about the box, she told me not to bother forwarding it. So I took a look inside.

It was filled with hundreds of samples of an unfamiliar medication. Another round of Googling revealed that the medicine was for diabetes and sold for around $80 a bottle. I was, of course, tempted to sell it somehow. I was freelancing and always needed cash. But my guess was that the kind of person willing to buy secondhand medication was probably not the kind of person I’d want to meet. So I went on Craigslist and placed an ad under the “free stuff” tab, where people usually post cats and old couches. I explained exactly what I had to offer and that it would be free to anyone who could produce a prescription for the stuff in their own name.

Amazingly, I heard back within a few days from a man who fit the bill. He came to my apartment, showed me his Rx and his ID, and thanked me profusely. Since he insisted on doing something for me in return, I asked him to take my recycling downstairs to the curb.

I often remember this story when people talk about how the Internet and social media are changing human relationships and maybe even human nature. Virtual friendships can leave us feeling isolated; virtual identities allow us to hide from even the ones we love; and cyberbullying, online hate groups, and anonymous smear campaigns are all part of life online. But what fascinates me is the way in which the Internet can unleash acts of generosity and true connection.

Truth is, anyone who goes online takes advantage of the kindness of strangers. Wikipedia is the most famous example. Still, sites like Amazon, eBay, Yelp, and TripAdvisor are also valuable because of the feedback provided gratis by millions of people. When it comes to sites such as PatientsLikeMe, or any of the thousands of message boards dedicated to infertility, cancer, and various other ailments, people get informed about life-and-death decisions based on volunteered information, while also deriving much-needed emotional support from strangers.

Sociologists attribute the desire to contribute to such communities to a “reputation economy,” in which people gain self-esteem and standing by giving away their time and opinion. Information is the thing people will share most readily, followed by time, followed by goods. Clay Shirky describes this with the following metaphor: If someone stops you on the street and asks you for directions, 9 times out of 10 you’ll help them out. If they ask you to help them cross the street, you’ll probably say yes. If they ask you for a dollar, you’ll probably say no.

The lost diabetes drugs, however, were a special kind of goods. They were worth nothing to me but quite a bit more than a movie review to someone else. I could give them away as freely as my opinion and gain plenty in reputation and self-esteem. The only missing ingredient: how to find and connect with the person who needed what I didn’t? The Internet solved that problem.

A slew of new websites are springing up to facilitate the giving away of goods and services. These hubs translate the peer-to-peer principles of sharing from the virtual to the real world. CouchSurfing.org, which has allowed 2.3 million travelers to find willing and free hosts all around the world, is one of the best examples. It’s easy to see why people like to sleep in a free bed, but why do people host them? The answer is that by giving away something that has little marginal cost, they get to meet new people from all over the world. Most people I know in their mid-twenties have at least one couch-surfing story, either romantic or hilarious; one pal calls it “a friend delivery service.”

Of course, getting a reputation economy going based on real goods, rather than virtual ones, is tricky. As anyone who has corresponded with a Nigerian prince knows, there are serious trust issues. And balancing the market between givers and receivers can be difficult. All TripAdvisor needs is a few people to post. A site like CouchSurfing, however, is more complex: A free sofa can be given away only once per night, so willing hosts and guests have to roughly match up.

Still, harnessing generosity and information to redistribute surplus goods and services is a compelling idea. People are taking the power of the Internet into their own hands to create a new form of global sharing. Will the couch-surfing generation take this sharing to heart and explore all the possibilities of this kind of reputation economy? Will this change how we live, work, and consume? It’s now easier than ever to give away something that’s of little value to you, but perhaps of considerable value to someone else — wherever in the world that person may be. For me, just knowing that this is possible makes me more likely to dive in.

This is the first in a series of columns, built around the challenges and unforeseen opportunities of change — from within and without. We’ve kicked it off with the name “Life in Beta,” but my editors and I would love your input on other possible titles for the series. Please send me your suggestions.

Read the original article at FastCompany.com.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Gates Foundation Bets on Facebook App to Help Kids Graduate

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

We’re used to thinking of Facebook as, at best, a distractor for college kids and at worst, a resume-destroyer. But the Gates Foundation, in its first-ever venture investment of $2 million in a little-known Facebook app platform called Inigral, is betting that it can actually make a measurable improvement in the rate of students who complete college, which hovers at a dismal 56% nationwide.

After economic factors, the key driver of persistence in college is student engagement–a tough-to-measure factor of how much students are immersed in intellectual and social life at the school. Inigral’s Schools App connects prospective students, students, and alumni with each other over common interests in a Twitter or Yammer-like format.

“Some call it kin to a virtual student union,” says CEO Michael Staton, who talked with Gates for a year prior to the investment. “Students use it to share information, express themselves, find friends, start projects, and find opportunities to get involved.” At one of their schools, the University of Texas at Tyler, prospective frosh who signed up for the app were five times more likely to attend the school.

The Gates investment will fund introductions of the Schools App at colleges that serve lots of lower-income Pell Grant recipients. Inigral is not the only company trying to leverage social media to improve outcomes for students. Red Rover is a similar, web-based tool, while ConnectEdu functions as a virtual college counselor as well as providing a recruitment and retention platform for colleges.

Read the original article at Fast Company.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Can the Ad Industry Save Education?

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

This month we asked a bakers dozen of contributors for fresh ideas on how to reinvent education. Now a coalition of ad industry heavy hitters from Wieden + Kennedy to BBDO has come out with a major campaign to promote creativity in education.

To be clear, they’re not just looking to promote creative solutions to well-known problems like poor math scores and low and falling graduation rates. They’re looking for approaches to promote creativity itself–arguing, in a really gorgeous slide presentation, that creativity is the no. 1 competitive edge in the 21st century, and the prime element that’s missing from our standardized test- and state standards-ridden school system. A patron saint of the effort, and judge on the panel, is Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk to this point is one of the most watched ever.


“What drives us is the possibility of a platform where the creative industries put their differences aside for one week out of the year to collaborate on something that is larger than ourselves and our business goals,” says Viktor Venson of multimedia and interactive agency Stopp, a driving force behind the campaign. ” If adopted, this would be an annual challenge asking the creative industries to respond to a burning issue or cause.”

As part of Social Media Week 2011, next week in New York City, No Right Brain Left Behind is challenging industry teams (advertising, interactive, marketing, design, what-have-you) to come up with products and approaches that work within or outside the existing school system. These will be piloted by the end of 2011.

I’m torn. I absolutely love the idea of moving our schools away from a relentless focus on tests of basic skills and toward approaches that emphasize play, risk-taking, collaboration, and the other skills that make work worth doing and life worth living. The very structure of this campaign, moving swiftly from design brief to execution, has the elegance of the American creative spirit at its best.

On the other hand, the interaction of the ad industry with schools has produced some not-so-pretty effects in the past (Channel One, anybody?) And lots of the problems in our public schools are problems of urban poverty and inequality that need to be solved with boring old tax policy, not jazzy new logos and apps.

I guess in the end I’ll go with optimism that No Right Brain Left Behind produces some interesting new opportunities and turns on some new creative minds to the problems in our education system. The more eyeballs on this issue, the better.

How Would You Spend $100 Million To Save Education?

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Read the original article at FastCompany.com.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

Why the NYT Should Go NPR

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

There’s a lot of harrumphing around the blogosphere about the New York Times‘ decision to again put up paywalls for digital access (the last attempt, TimesSelect, was shuttered in 2007). People are gaming out the angles: Have they chosen the right price points at as much as $20 a month? Why the different prices for the iPad app vs. website access vs. print subscriptions?

But the whole approach is wrong-headed. With its large, affluent, reasonably liberal and guilt-ridden audience, the Times would have more monetary success and more brand success with an NPR-like pay-what-you-will membership model with free events, tote bags, and other goodies thrown in. Membership dues are a significant source of revenue for NPR–43% of the budget in 2009.

Why does it make sense to charge only 15% of “power users,” as the Times says this new subscription model will? Readers of all stripes feel good about associating with the Times–just look at how often the phrase “Sunday Times” shows up in personal ads. The paper should build up this goodwill rather than make us feel bilked, or have to puzzle over the merits of various pricing models as though we were shopping for cable packages.

A bit of NPR-style customization wouldn’t hurt either. These days, like millions of younger people, I get my public-radio fix mainly on-demand or through podcasts. I get a special glow by supporting the specific shows that I like–and they make it really easy with text-based fundraising. I would gladly pay $ to be delivered a digital or paper version of the Times that has extra book reviews and skips the automotive section, and I’d love to contribute specifically to the investigative and world news sections.

The Times should call NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. She’d have a lot of great advice for them–in her last job, she worked for NYTimes.com on TimesSelect.

Read the original article at Fast Company.

diyu Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.