Education technology meets its limits

This week has been a good one for those who like to talk about the limits of technology. Over in the U.K., a prankster managed to fool Trip Advisor into naming his shed the No. 1 ranked restaurant in London. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a city struggling to manage several wind-fueled wildfires, the L.A.P.D. has asked drivers to refrain from using navigation apps because they’re steering drivers onto open routes that may, in fact, be on fire.

In the world of higher education, technology has always had the potential to upend the academic enterprise. In the late 1990s, as I began working in higher education, The New York Times mused about the transformative potential of online education: “Just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students… ‘Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,’ said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School.”

As anyone who has taken an online course will tell you, none of this came to pass. Nearly 20 years ago a company called UNext — founded by disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken — spent $180 million to build million-dollar simulation-based business courses with universities like Columbia, Stanford and Chicago, only to disappear several years later.

No one has really tried to do this since. Why bother when more than 3 million students are enrolled in online degree programs that are largely text-based, translated from traditional onground college courses in such a literal manner that it’s almost robotic: read material, participate in discussion, submit weekly assignment. And the faculty who deliver these courses are about as far from rich and famous as you can get.

Image: Getty Images/smartboy10/DigitalVision

About five years ago, two Silicon Valley companies — Coursera and Udacity — made new waves with big-name tech founders, mountains of venture capital and a goal of revolutionizing learning. Their model was Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — free self-paced courses, open to everyone.

When it turned out that few learners completed the MOOCs, and that it was difficult to build a viable business model on a foundation of free anything, both companies pivoted to tuition-based novel credentials: Udacity nanodegrees with curriculum from brand-name companies like Google and Apple; Coursera specializations with curriculum from brand-name universities like Yale and Stanford, but with additional content from some of the same brand-name companies e.g. Google, Splunk, Yelp, Qualcomm.

One of the challenges facing online providers is the question of efficacy. It turned out that the online education revolution wasn’t in quality or outcomes, but rather access — allowing millions of Americans to pursue degrees on their own time. Completion rates remain low and prominent researchers have questioned the return on investment of online programs.

Concerns about quality may explain why none of the major employers associated with Coursera and Udacity have committed to hire or even interview graduates of these novel online programs. No one seemed surprised at VentureBeat’s report from mid-2017 that of the 10,000 nanodegree graduates, “more than 1,000 participants have found jobs” — a ~10 percent placement rate that should spell the demise of any last-mile program.

As a result, Udacity has resorted to a series of money-back guarantees for graduates who don’t find jobs. But of course, money-back guarantees don’t address the real guarantee students are seeking: a job. Udacity may give you back your money, but who’s going to give you back your time?

The lesson Udacity, Coursera and others are learning is that developing skills-based online courses and credentials is the easy part. The hard part is getting employers to pay attention.

One thing all successful last-mile programs have in common is that they’re intensive. Many are eager to embrace the bootcamp moniker. In contrast, Coursera and Udacity online skills-based offerings are self-paced and might lead one to believe that an “online bootcamp” is an oxymoron.

There’s simply no way to guarantee intensity in an asynchronous online program. At any moment online students are likely to surf to another site, turn away from the screen or simply drop out. Based on the completion rates of these courses, that’s often what happens.

These online programs are in stark contrast to programs like Galvanize (in which I am an investor), where employers are present in the same physical environment, come into contact with students and appreciate the high intensity. Demonstrating confidence in Galvanize’s model, WeWork, the leading co-working space company, recently acquired coding bootcamp Flatiron School with the objective of integrating Flatiron’s programs into some of WeWork’s 170 global offices.

While employers show great interest in physical proximity, they’re less interested in engaging with online programs and graduates of such programs. As a result, expect continued inferior placement outcomes for online programs, which defeats the purpose of last-mile training.

But surely there must be ways to use technology to bridge the skills gap. There are, but they’re more nuanced than throwing a bunch of courses online, hoping employers will bite.

MIT’s experience is instructive. Several years ago, MIT began offering MOOCs through its partnership with edX, a nonprofit version of Coursera. One of these courses was Entrepreneurship 101, which aimed to teach the “essential skills needed to effectively identify and target customers.” As is usually the case, tens of thousands of students enrolled in the free course, but only a small percentage completed it.

In thinking about the MOOC’s purpose, MIT Lecturer Erdin Beshimov had the idea of inviting successful students to apply for a one-week onground bootcamp that would challenge students to start a company in five days.

A single email to students who completed the MOOC generated 500 applicants interested in paying $6,000 for the one-week bootcamp. Forty-seven students enrolled in MIT’s first entrepreneurship bootcamp and had a transformative experience based on the following principles: (1) A meaningful goal (e.g. launch a new business); (2) Intensity (according to Beshimov, the typical student slept 10 hours that week); (3) Team-based active learning (leading to bonding and a typical “hero’s journey” i.e. adventure-crisis-victory); and (4) Exposure to employers. Employers judged the final competition and met students.

One student in that initial bootcamp, David Anderton from the U.K., described the program as “super-intensive.”

“The first day we formed groups and ideas for projects, and we had the week to develop the project before a final pitch. Every night our team worked till 3 or 4 a.m. There was lots of problem solving and team arguments. Our team won the bootcamp with our idea, Uplook,” Anderton related. “Say you read a fashion blog and you want to buy the outfit the model is wearing. In Uplook, you can click to buy that outfit in a widget, without leaving the page; this captures people in the emotional high to buy, the blogger gets higher commission, etcetera.”

But Anderton’s team experienced major stress the night before the presentation. “I remember one guy was writing an idea on the board, and right behind him another person was erasing it. The lesson I learned was to respect each other, and we hadn’t done that,” he said. “We put on professional faces for the presentation, but when we got a real offer, nobody from our team wanted talk to each other. Another team that didn’t win got a half million dollar offer from Verizon.”

Since that first bootcamp, MIT has gone on to extend MOOCs into bootcamps for Food Innovation (large food companies provide the challenge and judge) and Internet of Things. Bootcamps have run not only in the U.S., but also in South Korea and Australia, attracting students from over 30 countries.

Beshimov says that the bootcamps appear to be producing strong outcomes for students; “in just two years, bootcamp graduates have raised tens of millions of dollars for their ventures.” Moreover, MIT’s MOOCs “command convening power for latent talent from every corner of the globe.” Unlike many other last-mile programs, MIT spends zero on marketing.

When a school as digitally savvy as MIT recognizes that digital delivery of postsecondary education has its limits, it’s worth paying attention. While online delivery can make a text-based asynchronous degree program even more convenient, it’s not doing much to address the skills gap manifested by millions of unfilled jobs, unhappy employers and underemployed college graduates. Technology can play an important role, but it requires more thought and creativity than ranking a shed the No. 1 restaurant in London or following Waze onto a burning L.A. street.