Open Education for a Global Economy (The New York Times)

Open Education for a Global Economy By DAVID BORNSTEIN

If you or your kids have taken an online lesson at the Khan Academy (3,200 video lessons, 168 million views), been enlightened by a TED Talk (1,300 talks, 800 million views), watched a videotaped academic lecture (Academic Earth, Open Courseware Consortium, Open Culture), enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, now being offered by companies like Udacity and a growing list of universities, including M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford), or simply learned to play guitar, paint a landscape or make a soufflé via YouTube — then you know that the distribution channels of education have changed — and that the future of learning is free and open.

This is good news for everyone, but it is particularly good for the vast number of people around the world whose job prospects are constrained by their skill levels and who lack the resources to upgrade them through conventional training. It’s a problem that a company based in Ireland called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is helping to address with a creative model. ALISON provides free online interactive education to help people acquire basic workplace skills. It’s not a megasite. It has a million registered learners, the bulk of whom live in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria and the Middle East, where ALISON has 200,000 students. It is adding 50,000 learners each month, but the kinds of services it offers are likely to proliferate in the coming years.

To understand why, we only have to think back to last week, when the big news was the release of the June jobs report, which found that the unemployment rate had stalled disappointingly at 8.2 percent. As always, the story behind that number is more noteworthy than the political spin it gets. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for people in “management, business and financial operations” is nowhere near 8.2 percent; it’s only 3.8 percent. For workers in “installation, maintenance and repair,” it’s 5.3 percent. It’s workers in certain occupations — like “transportation and material moving” (10.3 percent unemployment) and “construction and extraction” (13 percent) — who are experiencing the most severe economic pain.

That’s because the skills of many workers are increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market, and the gap is likely to grow, particularly given that only a minority of companies provide formal training to employees. This isn’t just an American problem, however. There are 200 million unemployed people around the world, 75 million of whom are youths, and many lack rudimentary workplace skills — the ability to use a computer, make a budget, communicate in an office environment. According to a study published last month by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020, the world will have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers and a shortage of up to 40 million college graduates.

Free and open online education could help close this gap, but only if it’s intentionally directed to the people around the world who most need it. Right now, a lot of free education is thrown online without a clear sense of how it will help people prepare themselves for employment. In May, Unesco, the branch of the United Nations that focuses on education, held an international gathering in China, where representatives concluded that the development of technical and vocational education and training — what one official called the “poor cousin of mainstream education” — should be deemed a “top priority” to tackle global unemployment.

ALISON addresses this need. It offers some 400 vocational courses at “certificate level” (1 to 2 hours of study) or “diploma level” (about 9 to 11 hours of study) and plans to add 600 more in the coming year. Its most popular course, ABC IT, is a 15- to 20-hour training suite that covers similar ground to the widely recognized International Computer Driving License curriculum. (ALISON’s certification is free; ICDL certification can cost over $500). Other popular offerings are project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, Microsoft Excel, health studies, basic study skills, operations management and psychology.

Last year, 50,000 users earned certificates or diplomas, which indicate that they completed courses and scored 80 percent or above on ALISON’s online assessment. Employers can verify an applicant’s knowledge with an online “flash test” of randomized questions (reminiscent of typing tests for stenographers). ALISON doesn’t have the capacity to track its learners’ career progress, but it has thousands of testimonials on its Web site. A typical example is one from Mariyam Thiseena, from the Maldives, who wrote: “I love ALISON because you give the feeling that even the poorest person deserves an education.” (Thiseena wrote to me that she found ALISON through Google and is currently pursuing a diploma in environmental engineering.)

Another student, Zakiyu Iddris Tandunayir, from Accra, Ghana, completed a diploma in social media marketing. “I’ve been interested in social media for a long time,” he told me by phone, “but when I discovered ALISON, I committed myself to it. I studied day in and day out. I passed my exam, then I set up a page on Facebook to do social media for businesses. I put my number in there and people started calling me.” Tandunayir added that he has since received contracts worth $700. “For my eight years of Internet experience I have never felt the way I feel now,” he commented.

ALISON is a for-profit social enterprise. “My vision is that all basic education and training is freely accessible online worldwide and accessible by everyone,” explains the company founder Mike Feerick, who received an award last year from Unesco for innovation in online workplace education and has been recognized by Ashoka as a social entrepreneur. “Education underpins all social progress. If we can improve the general education level worldwide, global poverty can be dealt with profoundly and a general standard of living can be vastly improved.”

Feerick says that the scope of the problem necessitates a business approach. There is not enough philanthropy, and perhaps not even enough government investment, to meet the world’s workplace development needs. (Seven percent of the world’s people currently have college degrees.) ALISON works to leverage and redirect the large supply of for-profit courses, searching for high-quality vocational offerings and inviting publishers to put some of their courses on ALISON, available free. For example, it carries hundreds of hours of English and French language instruction from the British Council and Alliance Francaise. (It never offers short “teaser” courses that link to paid sites, only modules at a minimum of a certificate level.) It hunts for courses that meet the specific needs of workers or employers in specific industries. For instance, it offers a 5 to 6 hour diploma in European Union public procurement, which sounds a bit dry — unless you’re applying for a job in a company that hopes to win contracts from the E.U., in which case it is a standout credential.

Publishers agree to work with ALISON because the company generates business leads for them and shares its revenues, mostly from advertising, sales of certificates and token fees from learners. (A graduate can purchase a paper certificate for $30 or one on parchment for $120, and opt to pay for premium access that loads slightly more quickly and has no ads.) Given its model, the more ALISON grows, the more free courses it will be able to offer.

The decision to make everything on ALISON free remains the key factor that distinguishes the site from others of its type, and makes it globally valuable. (In addition to English, there are courses in French, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic, and the platform is going to be translated into Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.) Unlike academic instruction, which is increasingly free online — you can take hundreds of lessons in algebra or calculus at the Khan Academy — quality workplace skills training is usually pricey. So is certification. Sites like, which offer training in software tools, require a paid subscription. Udemy, a relatively new education company with some excellent free courses, charges fees for many courses that offer workplace skills. If you’re a would-be programmer from Egypt, there is a world of difference between a free course in Microsoft Access and one that costs $99.

Just as there is great variability in teacher quality, online education is a mixed bag. “There’s an enormous amount of learning out there,” notes Feerick. “There’s also an enormous amount of rubbish. It’s hard to make out the difference if you don’t know what’s coming. We turn down a huge number of courses that are low quality.” What does ALISON look for? Feerick’s staff members ask the following. “Is it good content? Is it interactive? Does it ask you to do something? Sometimes the content really lends itself to video — like language learning where you need pronunciation help. Does it flow logically? Is the content from a reliable source? Is there a way to assess the learning?”

In the United States, ALISON is now offered through government workplace centers in 18 states. When a job seeker goes to EmployFlorida or Virginia Workforce Connection, for example, he or she can work with a counselor to survey the job market and assess skill gaps. The client may then be referred to traditional brick and mortar training or ALISON courses. ALISON also supplies digital literacy training to public schools in the United States.

Jaime Maniatis, the technology instructor at the Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School, in Trenton, N.J., which serves students who have previously dropped out, has been using its ABC IT course for a number of years. “It’s accessible from any computer in the building,” she said. “You can listen to it or read it, so it’s good for E.S.L. students. It’s interactive and has quizzes that help the students stay focused. And with all the cuts in education, it gives me security because I know I’ll always be able to use it — because it’s free.” She added that this year, she plans to spend $165 for a premium service that is ad-free and allows her to track students’ progress in three classrooms.

As the cost of formal education has skyrocketed and the job market continues to change at a rapid clip, the responsibility for keeping their skills up-to-date will likely fall more and more on individuals. Many will turn to online learning — for convenience and affordability. There are, of course, drawbacks to this. But there are advantages too — including the ability to work at your own pace and gain exposure to a broad array of topics. (The long tail of the Internet means that online courses can be highly specialized and still cost-effective. A university may offer a general electrical engineering course, but an online site can offer a course in how to operate a Siemens generator.) Perhaps the biggest advantage of online learning will be that women can more easily bypass the sexism and discrimination associated with traditional vocational education.

At ALISON, all students receive a learning record, a kind of archive of their response to life’s vicissitudes. Feerick notes: “The record says, ‘I might be 58 years of age, but I’m still learning.’”


The trouble with Khan Academy

The trouble with Khan Academy

July 3, 2012, 9:08 am

By Robert Talbert

At some point around the beginning of February 2012, David Coffey — a co-worker of mine in the math department at Grand Valley State University and my faculty mentor during my first year — mentioned something to me in our weekly mentoring meetings. We were talking about screencasting and the flipped classroom concept, and the conversation got around to Khan Academy. Being a screencaster and flipped classroom person myself, we’d talked about making screencasts more pedagogically sound many times in the past.

That particular day, Dave mentioned this idea about projecting a Khan Academy video onto the screen in a classroom and having three of us sit in front of it, offering snarky critiques — but with a serious mathematical and pedagogical focus — in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I told him to sign me up to help, but I got too busy to stay in the loop with it.

It turns out I missed my chance at viral internet stardom, because Dave finally made the video along with John Golden (another GVSU math person):


The video was first picked up by Dan Meyer’s blog, and from there made it to Education Week… then on to Slate, the Chronicle, the Huffington Post, and Wired. The video now has over 11,000 views and has spawned a Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000 contest (with Twitter hashtag #mtt2k). Khan Academy took down the video that Dave and John critiqued and replaced it with two new ones. So this has turned into kind of a big deal.

Another thing it’s spawned is a slew of comments and conversations about Khan Academy. More comments at this point than conversations. And unfortunately many of those comments are uncritical defenses of Khan Academy that often adopt a much nastier tone than John and Dave’s snarkiness from the video. (Just look at the comments below the YouTube video.) It seems like the #MTT2K project/phenomenon has pushed some issues about math education from simmering to boiling — which I think was Dave and John’s intent. As Dave has explained, the snarkiness of their video may not rub everyone the right way, but Khan Academy has an almost impenetrable veneer of rightness about it that only biting satire could cut through. And they’ve certainly cut through.

I don’t plan on joining in to the #mtt2k contest because my criticisms of Khan Academy are more at the top level than in the specifics of any one video, and I hope my ongoing screencasting work embodies the kind of pedagogical approach I’d like to see video resources take. Some readers might be surprised I have any criticisms at all, since my screencasting is so obviously inspired by Khan; I even once openly wondered if Khan Academy is the future of education. But some criticisms remain, and since the conversation is happening, I thought I’d briefly lay those out.

Let’s start with what Khan Academy is. Khan Academy is a collection of video lectures that give demonstrations of mechanical processes. When it comes to this purpose, KA videos are, on the average, pretty good. Sal Khan is the main reason; he is approachable and has a knack for making mechanical processes seem understandable. Of course, his videos are not perfect. He tends to ramble a lot and get sidetracked; he doesn’t use visuals as effectively as he could; he’s often sloppy and sometimes downright wrong with his math; and he sometimes omits topics from his subjects that really need to be there (LU decomposition in linear algebra, for example). But on balance, KA is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work: giving demonstrations of mechanical processes.

But let’s also be honest about what Khan Academy is not. Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged. It’s OK that it’s not these things. We don’t walk into a Mexican restaurant and fault it for not serving spaghetti. I don’t fault Khan Academy for not being a complete educational resource, because it wasn’t designed for that purpose. Again, Khan Academy is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work. But when you try to extend it out of that niche — as Bill Gates and others would very much like to do — all kinds of things go wrong.

When we say that someone has “learned” a subject, we typically mean that they have shown evidence of mastery not only of basic cognitive processes like factual recall and working mechanical exercises but also higher-level tasks like applying concepts to new problems and judging between two equivalent concepts. A student learning calculus, for instance, needs to demonstrate that s/he can do things like take derivatives of polynomials and use the Chain Rule. But if this is all they can demonstrate, then it’s stretching it to say that the student has “learned calculus”, because calculus is a lot more than just executing mechanical processes correctly and quickly. To say that it is not — that knowledge of calculus consists in the ability to perform algorithmic processes quickly and accurately — is to adopt an impoverished definition of the subject that renders a great intellectual pursuit into a collection of party tricks.

Even if the student can solve optimization or related rates problems just like the ones in the book and in the lecture — but doesn’t know how to start if the optimization or related rates problem does not match their template — then the student hasn’t really learned calculus. At that point, those “applied” problems are just more mechanical processes. We may say the student has learned about calculus, but when it comes to the uses of the subject that really matter — applying calculus concepts to ambiguous and/or complex problems, choosing the best of equivalent methods or results, creating models to solve novel problems — this student’s calculus knowledge is not of much use.

Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world. Learning at these levels requires more than watching videos (or lectures) and doing exercises. It takes hard work (by both the learner and the instructor), difficult assignments that get students to work at these higher levels, open channels of communication that do not just go one way, and above all a relationship between learner and instructor that engenders trust.

This is not to say that Khan Academy can’t play a useful role in learning calculus or some other subject. I don’t deny that mechanical skill is important for getting to the higher-level cognitive tasks.  But mechanical skill is a proper subset of the set of all tasks a student needs to master in order to really learn a subject. And a lecture, when well done, can teach novice learners how to think like expert learners; but in my experience with Khan Academy videos, this isn’t what happens — the videos are demos on how to finish mathematics exercises, with little modeling of the higher-level thinking skills that are so important for using mathematics in the real world. So the kinds of learning objectives that Khan Academy videos focus on are important — but they’re not enough. And I’m troubled when people say that it is enough, that Khan Academy videos are great because “they work”, and redefine mathematics to be the study of how to perform hand-calculations and pass mathematics exams.

One last thing for this post. I’m not a Khan Academy hater. I’ve used the videos for a long time — I think as far back as 2008, and definitely before KA made it big. I’ve assigned KA videos many times and will continue to do so, in the right amounts and the right contexts. And I believe online video is an idea whose time has really come in education. I’m not jealous of, or threatened by, Khan Academy in the slightest. But I’m not an uncritical fan, either, and we need to look at carefully at Khan Academy before we adopt it, whole-cloth, as the future of education.

Title Colleges Face More Drama Ahead

TIMES, Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2012

University of Virginia Reinstates President, But Colleges Face More Drama Ahead

By Kayla Webley

Trustees at the University of Virginia voted unanimously on Tuesday to reinstate the president they ousted just two weeks ago. But while the decision to restore Teresa Sullivan to the position she had held since August 2010 brings to an end days of swirling uncertainty, speculation and campus protests, the issues the drama brought to the forefront are likely to echo across college campuses nationwide for months to come.

Rector Helen Dragas, the head of the university board (known as the Board of Visitors) — and an individual widely seen as an instigator for Sullivan’s removal in the first place — said she hoped the decision would reunite the campus community. “It’s time to bring the university family back together,” she said at the meeting, according to Inside Higher Ed. For her part, Sullivan said she and the trustees need to work together to put the debacle behind them. “I need to have your support,” she said, according to Inside Higher Ed. “I need you to reach out to your networks around the commonwealth and the world to help us move forward.”

 The reunification is desperately needed on the campus that has been in upheaval following the sudden announcement of Sullivan’s departure on June 10. In the days since, the board’s vice rector stepped down, one professor resigned in protest, and students and faculty held rallies in support of the popular president on campus and spray painted the word “GREED” on the columns of the school’s famed Rotunda building. The chaos intensified on June 19 when the board ignored demands from the faculty to offer a more detailed explanation for why it pushed Sullivan out, and met in a closed door session to appoint an interim president. Tuesday’s decision came after Governor Robert McDonnell, who appoints the board members, threatened to ask the entire board to step down if it was unable to decide conclusively whether to reinstate Sullivan or move on without her.

In a lengthy statement applauding the decision, McDonnell said, “The past few weeks have not been easy for the University, and all those who love it. There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame. Now, with today’s Board action, the time has come for Mr. Jefferson’s University to move forward. The statements made today by Board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.”

But while the decision resolves the immediate situation in Charlottesville, the reaction around the country over the past two weeks makes clear that there are deep divisions in academia over how to run a university at a time when virtually all public universities are grappling with dwindling financial resources.

Here are three key issues to watch in the coming months:

PROFESSORS OR CEOS? Should a university campus be run like a business? The reactions to Sullivan’s dismissal showed clearly that while many faculty members believe academic credentials should trump other considerations in the president’s role, others increasingly worry that the job is more akin to CEO — a role most academics have little experience with. If the worriers are right, colleges need business acumen at the top to take quicker, more decisive action than is typical of academia, move more responsively to changes in the marketplace and balance budgets.

THE MOOC FACTOR One of the more contentions issues that emerged in the Sullivan saga was uncertainty over how higher education is being altered by the rise of MOOCs, or massively open online courses. After the UVA student newspaper submitted a FOIA request, the university released several emails from Rector Dragas that indicate she and others were keenly aware of the attention elite schools like Harvard and Stanford were getting for starting up MOOCs, a trend that some experts say will fundamentally alter college education.

 RISINGS COSTS FOR STUDENTS Over the past year, state funding for higher education has declined by nearly 8%. What that means: at a time when demand for degrees is at an all-time high, there is $6 billion less being funneled into the nation’s public colleges and universities. As resources dwindle, universities are left with little choice but to put more of the financial burden on students who are already taking on record levels of debt. To compensate for the lack of funds, universities face decisions about shrinking the number of enrollment slots they can offer, recruiting more students from out-of-state and even internationally, cutting back on the number of courses offered and scaling back the number of full-time professors they employ.

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