MSR Selingo Demillo

Affordable access to quality higher education has been a cornerstone of American life since the nation’s founding. American higher education is admired around the world as a model of excellence and innovation, but there is a consensus today that higher education in the U.S. is not on a sustainable path. My books Abelard to Apple and Revolution in Higher Education (both from MIT Press) chronicled the events that led to the current state of affairs and describe an optimistic but much changed ecosystem for higher education.

There are no simple solutions to the problems plaguing colleges and universities. A small band of innovators has taken up the challenge, launched a revolution and has started to remake higher education. The result will be a new, more sustainable ecosystem. Technology holds the key to innovation in higher education. I want to describe the world that the innovators are building, using as examples the innovations like the ecosystem pioneered at Georgia Tech, powered by online education, unexpected partnerships, business reinvention and a willingness to disrupt the status quo. What will the University of the 21st Century Look like? It will be very different from the ones we attended.

Join Jeff Selingo, best-selling author of College (un)Bound and There Is Life After College for our on-stage discussion in Redmond at Microsoft Research of what the revolution is all about.

Video courtesy of Microsoft press here.


cheap data collection


The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the future of universities was absorbed earlier this year into several other councils–a mistake, in my view, since none of the other councils have institutional focus–but several of the white papers live on. This one on the privacy issues inherent in learning analytics generated some interest in 2012, but the big data aspects of higher education seemed like an abstraction to many council members. Over the past year it has started to loom large (see here and here, for example).  I happen to be a big fan of analytics.  Data from the 700,000 students enrolled in Georgia Tech’s Coursera MOOCs have already had an impact on the quality of residential instruction. However, one of my day jobs is cybersecurity, which has made me sensitive to new technologies that have not paid sufficient attention to security and privacy. This white paper is a note of caution.

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Backer Jacob  envy

The next verse of the epic poem “Year of the MOOC” will almost certainly be a recounting of a fall from grace if I am correctly reading my recent discussions with dozens of institutional leaders. Whether there will be enlightenment and ultimate redemption is less clear at this point, but what should be a path forward for thousands of institutions could just as easily lead to despair and ruin.

Not because MOOCs are a bad idea, mind you. If there were ever a confluence of innovations that could perfect learning, the simultaneous maturing of  MOOCs, social networking,  and big data are it.  Daphne Koller makes the point in her now ubiquitous Coursera speech: We have known for thirty years (since Benjamin Bloom’s landmark paper “The Two Sigma Problem”) that the master classroom is a way to universally improve learning when compared to traditional classrooms.  The only thing holding us back was the cost of personalizing the learning experience for each student.  MOOCs allow master classrooms be operated effectively for large numbers of students.  I just spoke with edX’s Anant Agrwawal, and he cites a half-dozen other research results confirming better learning enabled by MOOCs.That’s the innovation, and that’s what makes MOOCs such a great idea.

The very existence of MOOCs could be a pathway to think about value in a new way, to looking at the constraints that existed before Udacity, Coursera, and edX and wondering what the next world would be like. It may not turn out to be paradise but it will be a world without those constraints. Instead, too many institutions are reverting to the seven deadly sins of higher education.  Beginning with envy.

In Abelard to Apple I blamed envy for many poor decisions by otherwise insightful academic leaders. Higher education has opted into a destructive, needlessly competitive class system in which schools at the top of the hierarchy are chased by everyone else in a rigged game that ultimately hurts students. If you are a state school, you envy one of the famous public research universities. Technical universities envy MIT and CalTech, Liberal arts colleges envy whichever institution is  at the top of the pyramid whose riches they covet. It is institutional envy pure and simple.  It has been the ruination of hundreds of otherwise promising colleges and universities and has helped drive American higher education to the brink of unsustainability.

Here is an excerpt of my recent conversation with someone in a senior leadership role at a college — in the Middle to use Abelard to Apple terminology —  that is beginning to produce its own MOOCs:

Q: Why are you producing your own MOOCs?

A: Why should we let [deleted] do all the MOOCs? We are just as good as them. Why let them get all the credit?

There are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the common thread is that this school is trying to buy its way into a game that is rigged against them.  At the very least they will spend a lot of money (that they do not have) to produce a lot of MOOCs (that are not very good).  Yes, there will be a few that are really great, but those few do not justify the level of spending they are thinking about.  Most importantly they will fail because they have defined success as enrolling 100,00 students or more. Why is this an important number:  because [deleted] enrolls 100,000 students in its courses.

It’s a small leap to consider the effect of other deadly sins:

  • Lust: “100,00 students?  Wow!”
  • Gluttony: “I want them all”
  • Greed: “That should be worth a lot of money.”
  • Pride: “No one can do it better.”

There is no agreement on the the sins that belong on the list. I took theology courses from Thomistic scholars who had a decidedly medieval view of these matters. Aquinas for example was not a big fan of including sloth (“I don’t have to teach?”)  in the list preferring instead to go for a more popular malady afflicting monks who spent their lives in prayerful isolation (“I am so tired of dealing with unprepared, unmotivated undergraduates”).

Nor is there agreement on how tightly bound together these things are.  Can you have envy without pride?

Who is virtuous in this new world? At the risk of promoting unwanted scrutiny, I would have to say that San Jose State University is doing the right thing.  San Jose State decided to conduct an experiment in blended learning using the edX version of the MIT 6.002 course entitled Circuits and Systems. It could not have been an easy choice.  SJSU faculty had to sacrifice their hallowed position on the stage and redefine their roles in the classroom:

SJSU students have been viewing and using online materials as homework, including lectures, quizzes and virtual labs available through the edX platform. Then they go to class to work through problem sets with their instructor, thereby flipping the conventional approach of lectures in class and problem sets at home.

Initial reports are encouraging.  A course that historically flushes out 40% of the enrolled students in the traditional format, retains 90% in the flipped format.  Professors and students alike had to adjust, but maybe that is the price of virtue.  It is a price worth paying, because simply lusting after the 100,000 students is not a strategy that will be rewarded in this pre-MOOC world  or the next.

When I wrote Dancing with the Stars of Pure Math the idea of attending Dick Lipton’s seminar with 10,000 students was  novel and risky.  That was 2009.  Well before the start of the innovative whirlwind in online education that was started when Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng opened their Stanford courses to hundreds of thousands of students.

Dick and I spoke with Sebastian before Udacity was launched and we were both impressed with his vision of the learning experience as compelling media.  As best I can recall, here is what he said.

If the traditional lecture is a stage play, then I want to be the movies.  Although early film makers tried to adapt live stage plays to the new media by pointing a camera at the stage, it was not a good experience.  It was only when film makers realized that they had to recreate the dramatic form that film became a new and compelling experience.

In his recent post at Godel’s Lost Letter (GLL), Dick has given us a vision of a new form of instruction:

The usual video-based course is a film of an instructor talking and writing at a board or on a tablet computer. These courses are popular among students, at least partially because they are free. The videos are informative, although it is yet unclear whether they are as good or better than physical courses. You know—course with students in seats and an instructor talking and interacting with them. We will see…Our plan is to make a mini-series length course with characters who have issues, who follow an interesting story line—vampires?—and yet are able to convey the information we want the students to learn. Our view is to create a new type of film: not a documentary, not a docudrama, not a dry lecture. A mixture of fiction and information.

This is unabashedly an experiment.  I have been trying to find a way to incorporate GLL into our online experiments at Georgia Tech, and this is a a prototype of how that might work.

What do you think? Will students go to the movies with stars of pure math?

What other formats do you think might work?  I have been (unsuccessfully so far) lobbying Dick and Ken to try what I call The Larry King Show format.  In this format the host (Dick or Ken) and maybe a sidekick talk about math by interviewing math celebrities (including the people who created the ideas).  They can even “interview” celebrities who are dead by using actors and inventing plausible dialogues.

Larry King was famous for his “Hello, Duluth Minnesota!” call-in dialogues, and that part of the show seems to me to be ideally suited to a seminar.  There might even be some surprise call-ins when the topic is (for mathematicians) controversial.

You have to get used to the idea of classrooms as performances.

I was up most of the night poring over Taylor Walsh’s new book “Unlocking the Gates: How and why leading universities are opening up access to their courses.”  It’s a deep and compelling companion to Abelard to Apple, and it’s one that I plan to assign as required reading to Georgia Tech’s newly chartered Educational Technology Council.

What convinced me that Elite institutions may have reached a tipping point beyond which the economics of access and scale will be forever changed was former Princeton president Bill Bowen’s remarkable foreword:

I think that present and prospective economic realities dictate that there be a serious rethinking of the way some forms of instruction are provided, especially in those parts of the public sector that have been hurt the most by funding cuts…I am well aware that in some quarters speaking of ―productivity gains‖ is close to blasphemy. But we have to get over that mindset: we just can‘t afford to continue doing business as usual. We have to find ways to do more with less. Resources saved in this way could be redeployed to teach more students or, conceivably, to teach advanced students more effectively…I have been on record for some time as being skeptical about the likely effects on productivity in higher education of various new technologies. But the evidence that Walsh presents about the work at Carnegie Mellon has caused me to rethink my position.

Abelard to Apple readers know  there is  substantial evidence that the biggest impact of open and online content will be to allow resources to be applied to more value-laden parts of the curriculum.  Taylor’s book is ground breaking and makes in no uncertain terms that argument using well-researched case studies.  “Unliocking the Gates” illustrates why this movement will continue to gain momentum at those universities whose resources, reputations, and global reach enable them to set their own agendas.

Rich DeMillo spoke at the American University Library Digital Futures Forum last week  The subject was the transformational power of media and how digital literacy is changing higher education.  Rich’s talk focused on the speed with which incumbents can be swept aside in the face of social, economic and political changes: traditional universities have been slow to recognize that change.  Rich used Massive Open Online Courses as a metaphor for mentoring and peer-to-peer learning when online technologies are used intelligently.  His conclusion?  There is actually nothing very radical about a MOOC, and existing technologies are already being deployed widely.

Watch the video here.

The session concluded with a panel discussion.

  • Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor, School of Communication
  • Jill Klein, Information Technology Executive in Residence, Kogod School of Business
  • Christopher Simpson, Professor of Journalism, School of Communication
  • Moderator: Alex Hodges, Assistant Director for Library Instruction, University Library


In a few days I will publish a short comment on the difference between Big Fixes in higher education and Small Fixes. Big fixes are things like policy changes at the federal and state level. When Big Fixes go wrong, there is no way to predict how systems will fail.  No Child Left Behind was a Big Fix, and the damages are still unfolding.

Technology innovations are Small Fixes. I’m not talking about new technology that force-fits a 16th century educational system into a hyper-techno contraption.  I’m talking about innovative things that are not obvious and may not even have an obvious application to education. Most iPad apps are Small Fixes for some bigger problem. Small Fixes are important precisely because you can assemble a lot of them and stand back while some invisible hand fishes out the ones that actually add value. Blogging is a Small Fix for higher education.

I was preparing for a class on nanotechnology a few years ago, and I needed an example to illustrate how much heat would be generated by a wide scale deployment of cell-sized nano-computers.  I wanted the class to calculate the energy dissipation of a film of these little computers on all paved roads in the US. But how many miles of paved roads are there?

I looked through atlases, online maps and more websites for departments of transportation than I care to remember.  In the end I took a stab at it:  2 million miles more or less. It was a case of misplaced priorities.  No one but me really cared what the right number was (or even if there was a right number).  I was anticipating that some wiseguy graduate student would want to know where the number came from.  That never happened.  It was a waste of time.

I was reminded at some point in this literal journey through the back roads of America that my old friend and colleague Alan Perlis had the knack of pulling computational examples like this out of thin air. “How many bricks are there in New York City?” he would ask during an oral exam, and then he would sit back and watch the gears turn. Well-oiled gears would tune in quickly to an interesting line of reasoning.  That was the point.  Not-so-well-oiled gears would cause of a lot of embarrassed thrashing.

I vaguely remember wondering, “What would be the value of being able to create and re-create many examples with a sort of search engine for computational knowledge?” I thought nothing more about it until I stumbled upon WolframAlpha, a “computational knowledge engine” from the company that distributes Mathematica. WolframAlpha is a website, and the first thing you should do when you land there is to type in a question.  So I asked how many miles of paved roads there are in the U.S. You can see the result above. In addition to the answer itself, you get a plausible chain of reasoning that leads you to that answer.

Here is what Stephen Wolfram says about WolframAlpha:

Realistically, though, we haven’t been “discovered” yet in even a small fraction of the areas we cover. We don’t know the whole process by which that happens (and it would make a fascinating study), but somehow, gradually, different areas of Wolfram|Alpha functionality do seem to be “discovered”, and progressively build up larger and larger followings.

This is really the essence of a Small Fix.  Wolfram points out that an engine like this has been the dream of philosophers for centuries.  An “assistant” who assembles knowledge in context. Leibniz’s idea was to accelerate the pace of inquiry. As one of the comments on Wolfram’s blog says:

Every once in a while I can’t help but think that Liebniz must be having a party in his grave!

What impact might WolframAlpha have on education?  Maybe none, but there’s almost no cost to finding out. I can’t help but think that Leibniz would have found a way to say, “Cool!”