The mindset of the educational-industrial complex is threatening to take over online education as well

“Will this be on the test?”

Rethinking online education

by Seth Godin

The first generation of online learning came with a lot of hype but didn’t fully deliver on its promise. What does the future hold?

[This is the sequel to Stop Stealing Dreams, now reprinted on Medium.]

A few years ago, a computer science course online broke records and signed up 100,000 students. It was a revelation. Students from all over the world, without regard for their ability to pay, formal schooling or connections, were all able to take an advanced course from a world-class professor.

At a time when tuition at an Ivy League school is more than $40,000 a year ($5,000 a course), this online course delivered more than three billion dollars worth of higher learning aggregate value for free.

This is the sort of mammoth economic and access transformation that the internet enables.

The media was abuzz. Net theorists, teachers and organizations were excited because this was the beginning of a mammoth shift in the way everyone would learn everything. Not only a college education, but corporate training and everything in between.

Not mentioned in most of the articles was the fact that nearly 99% of the students that enrolled dropped out of the course. One thousand students graduated — an astonishing number, a huge contribution, but the tiniest fraction of the number that began the course.

In real life, a dropout rate of 99% endangers even a tenured professor’s career.

But, you might say, it’s the internet. We’ve come to associate the internet as low-engagement, a drive-by experience. We take for granted that the internet offers us things that are slightly flaky, or easy. So we’re not surprised when the drop out rate is so high. Easy in, easy out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The course was as well-designed as a real-world lecture and the teacher was qualified and engaging, but it’s not a surprise that the dropout rate was so high: As soon as education gets difficult (and useful education always gets difficult) it’s social pressure, peer pressure and our own need to fit in and achieve that often keeps us going. The typical online course provides precious little of any of these elements.

Your peers can’t see you, which makes it difficult to see yourself.

It’s not surprising that traditional universities embraced online learning — it’s at the heart of their charter. And countless organizations jumped in as well, because it appears to be not only a public good, but a cheap way to train your people, with zero marginal cost and plenty of upside for everyone.

Centralized content, top-down control of the syllabus, the ability to approve every interaction — these are the hallmarks of a process that fits most bureaucracies.

Here’s the thing: large universities have built their institutions around lectures, tests and accreditation. So have many internal training functions.

Lectures are at the heart of the last century of higher learning. A proven scholar orates in front of a class of selected students.

Tests are the way institutions enforce compliance. They’re the stick.

And accreditation is the carrot. Put up with the lectures and the tests and we’ll give you the certificate, the scarce piece of paper that is (supposed to be) worth far more than the effort you went through to get certified.

In one question, then, an easy way to understand modern education: “Will this be on the test?”

The student absorbs, the student regurgitates, the student gets the prize of a degree (and a job).

Modern industrialized education is like a job because, in large measure, it’s funded by the very same folks who offer jobs. It’s like a job because school was invented to train us to be compliant in our jobs. And it’s like a job because compliance is easy to scale.

We’ve seen that when knowledge jobs meet the internet, they change. And now we’re seeing that online education is having trouble acting like a job as well.

Online courses can’t offer too much in the way of credit (because there’s too little scarcity) and online tests are difficult to administer in high-stakes situations. Worst of all is the fact that few people in the age of a TED talk will eagerly sit through a traditional lecture when there’s little at stake.

This has led to an explosion of low-stakes, as-much-fun-as-vocational online courses like the well-executed ones offered by Skillshare and Udemy. But because the stakes are lower, the amount of transformative learning that goes on is lower. It’s possible for a semester at Harvard Business School to change a life — but less likely it will happen in a lecture course online.

Traditional schooling is based on top-down power, fear and an elusive carrot. It uses brute force to move large numbers of people down a straight line of education toward a norm.

And the challenge for traditional educators is that when they go online, they have very little power, the fear that comes from hard work causes dropouts and the carrot feels very far away indeed.

Last year, I set out to try to find a different way to teach online. I decided that I wouldn’t create an analog of real-life learning online, but instead create a fundamentally new way to cause change to happen.

I’m sharing the results of that process here, because I believe we’re entering a new generation of online learning. This is how we built the altMBA.

At its core: enrollment, not tests. Experiences not media consumption. Peer to peer, not top down.

Enrollment is a simple concept: people are there because they want to be, eager to move forward, on precisely the same road that the course is. They are moving forward, and the job of the course isn’t to cajole, it’s to transform.

Students are on this bus because they want to be.

Experiences are at the heart of change. We change when we do something, when we interact with the world. Lectures weren’t chosen as the default in traditional real-world courses because they maximize educational outcomes. They were chosen as the default because they are the best way to efficiently control 45 unenrolled students.

It turns out that the best way to cause change is for people to actually change someone or something else. We learn what we do, not what we’re told.

Peer to peer scales. We have learned this from Facebook and from eBay and from Etsy and from Kickstarter and from airbnb etc. But school hasn’t learned it yet, because the existing bureaucracies in most industries (and yes, education is an industry) are built on the control that comes from going top down.

I began by imagining the opposite of the current system: Create a course that was small, not large. Relatively expensive, not free. Real time not asynchronous. Open to some, not to all. Experiential, not lecture based. With live coaches…

The altMBA, the course we now run, has some surprising elements:

  • The backbone is a hand-built, peer-to-peer learning environment, not a series of lectures. In fact, there are no lectures at all.
  • Cohort-based, with groups of five to twenty people engaged constantly with each other (we use Slack as a surprisingly powerful peer-to-peer setting for experiential learning). There is very little time spent engaging directly from top down.
  • There are no lectures, no proprietary videos, no secret lessons. Instead, there’s a deep syllabus of materials (some required, some optional, most of them free or low cost).
  • Almost all of the work happens through the 14 assignments our students take on in the course of the month. Every few days, they complete another one.
  • All of the final work product is in public. A lot like real life.
  • Every student reviews and then comments on several of the other students’ assignments.
  • Every student takes the five or ten comments received and turns them into a reflective script, detailing actual change, actual growth.
  • Everything iterates, again and again.
  • The students attending are from dozens of cities, more than a handful of countries, time zones around the world, but every admitted student shares the same mindset of seeking true growth. Self-selection plus curated admissions means that the support network is strong. Enrollment—in the outcome and the process—is the secret of effective education.
…Enrollment—in the outcome and the process—is the secret of effective education.
  • A team of ten trained coaches is engaged with the students, holding office hours in videoconferencing software, cheering from the sidelines and holding people accountable — not to a system, not to a test, but to themselves.
  • And so we set expectations. Again and again, about how we do things around here.
  • The group is always on the edge of something — success, a breakthrough, exhaustion… and then they regroup and do it all again.
  • Everyone makes promises, everyone shows up, everyone connects.
  • The dropout rate is less than 2%. We graduate more than 98% of our matriculated students, an almost symmetric reversal of the typical online course.
  • Many of our students are getting generous and direct feedback for the first time in their career. And it sticks.

Online learning is no longer about the technology — off the shelf tech is already good enough. It’s now about a series of choices that teachers and education impresarios can make (or shy away from).

“Is this voluntary or involuntary?”

“Am I doing this as a proxy for something else, as a payment to get the prize, or is the learning and the experience the prize?”

Transformational experiences almost always involve voluntary enrollment. Crossfit or running a marathon, a middle-aged man learning to play the cello, a teenager giving a TEDx talk. These aren’t things we have to do, they are things we choose to do.

When a course begins with that voluntary mindset and then uses that enrollment to generously pile on expectations, connections and promises, the rules are different.

Consider that public school is also known as compulsory education. The posture of everyone involved is that this is something you must do, not something that is sought out.

“Will this be on the test,” is a marker, an admission that few people involved in the process are actually willing participants. No test, no learning. No test, no credit. Few seek out tests, tests are something we do to people, not for them.

On the other hand, in the abundance-based economy of online learning, enrollment is essential. It’s voluntary, after all. Voluntary like the Boston Marathon, voluntary like a course in public speaking.

Volunteers lean into their work, they gulp instead of sip.
Volunteers aren’t given tests, they take an opportunity.
Volunteers don’t want less, they want more.

The new generation of educators can now build courses that take these volunteers at their word, pushing them to do the hard work to actually make change happen.

If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.

The lecture doesn’t go away from our culture, and neither do tests. But neither can be at the center of the online learning environment, not any more.

It’s not easier to run a course this way, it’s actually far more difficult. I’m not sure that matters. What matters is: Does the process work?

We’re standing at a crossroads, even bigger than the one that the pioneers of public education saw a hundred years ago. Let’s not waste it.

For more on the current state of education and how we got here, check out the free ebook Stop Stealing Dreams, which comes with a matching TEDx talk.