Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom On New Online Education Initiatives: “If This Doesn’t Wake Them Up, I Don’t Know What Will”

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This morning, former San Francisco Mayor and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun took the stage to talk to TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis about technology and the fissures it’s creating in higher education. Lately, the colleges and universities have been put on notice, as average tuition rates continue to rise (along with student debt), students are looking for alternatives.

Not only is higher education is expensive, but funding for public education is falling. As a regent of the University of California schools, Newsom said that the system’s budget was cut by over $2 billion this year: Yet another example of why digital education is becoming so important.

In response, Thrun, Udacity and a host of online education providers and Silicon Valley tech companies are coming together to launch The Open Education Alliance. Like Udacity’s new online-only Computer Science degree program at Georgia Tech and its efforts to create online options for 101-level and remedial classes at San Jose State University, this Open Ed. Alliance is a work in progress. It’s an experiment.

Experimentation is extremely important at this stage of the game. Sure, Udacity can’t explain away some of its struggles with outcomes during the early-going of its SJSU partnership. But the more Thrun and the company learn in terms of how to communicate its goals (both to students and faculty), the clearer it makes deadlines for coursework and the more transparency it can bring to its process — and its partner schools — the more the end user (i.e. the student) stands to benefit.

During the talk, Thrun stressed the importance for he and Udacity to stay focused on product, something that we haven’t much of in education. It’s a mentality that’s endemic among startups and the engineer-heavy culture at startups, but not necessarily in education. In the end, of course, improving educational courseware, content and apps should be all about improving outcomes, personalizing the learning path and adaptive (or responsive) software. These, however, tend to be buzz words in education, and entrepreneurs have largely had a tough time balancing the two.

The Open Education Alliance can potentially be an extremely disruptive model because it addresses what Thrun and Newsom acknowledged repeatedly as one of the biggest problems that the higher education system faces: The skills gap. Today, education is geared towards assessment — towards preparing students for some illusory, state-driven, assessment-driven goals, which may have no relevance in the end to giving them the skills and preparation they need to thrive outside of higher education.

In reference to the Open Education Alliance, Newsom told the crowd: “If this doesn’t wake up the U.C., CSU and the community college systems, I don’t know what will.” As someone operating within the boundaries of the higher educational system, “I say bring it on,” Newsom intoned.

This was also a response to the fact that Newsom’s staff had encouraged him not to accept the invitation to appear on today’s panel because of the perception that Thrun is trying to kill higher education. During my talk with him off-stage, Thrun tells me that is decidedly not the point of Udacity or this Open Education Alliance. Instead, it is the critics (some of them within the higher education system) that have taken up the torch.

Arguing that MOOCs and online education will kill higher education systems or are somehow bad for the end user, for students and for teachers is kind of ridiculous at this point, both Thrun and Newsom replied. “We need to get serious about this,” Newsom responded, and certainly the motivation has been growing.

And, really, it comes down to skills. If institutions of higher ed won’t respond to the changing norms and standards, it’s almost as if Udacity, Coursera and EdX (all said to be part of the new alliance) are saying, “well then let’s give students a way to prepare for the kind of technical jobs at Google, Twitter, Facebook and so on that higher ed doesn’t seem to be preparing them for.”

In the end, it’s still extremely early for the Open Education Alliance, but the principles behind it could have a huge effect on education down the road. Udacity and companies like Lynda.com have already dabbled as corporate education and training platforms, or like Skillshare, learning platforms focused on giving students the skills they need or want in order to get better at their job — or something they enjoy. But partnering with companies like Google — where leagues of aspiring engineers want to go to work — to help them train these students in a way that actually ensures they could be hired (not just the false promise) has huge implications.