Let's Reimagine Yale Education

December 12, 2012

This post originally appreared in the Yale Daily News as a Guest Column

Yale’s administration and faculty convened last Thursday to discuss “ways in which the University could expand online,” including having faculty “experiment” with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). We, the students, though, must pressure the University to quickly advance this agenda beyond basic “experimentation.” MOOCs enable us to get most of a Yale education for free, and to optimize our Yale campus experience around creativity and collaboration. Online education isn’t waiting for some grand Yale agenda; it has already arrived, and if Yale wants to advance the future of education – both globally and here on campus – we need a bold vision.

MOOCs gained significant cultural traction in 2011, when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offered his Artificial Intelligence class online — for free. 160,000 people around the world signed up to learn from him, take quizzes, complete homework assignments and engage online with their peers. Since then, interest in MOOCs has ballooned; Coursera, an online MOOC platform, now offers 208 courses.

Presuming these trends continue, what is the future role of brick and mortar Yale? Yale’s campus of the future should focus exclusively on hands-on creative learning, not passive knowledge absorption. Our campus should offer a purely generative education, leaving tethered education for the net.

What are generative and tethered educations? These terms come from Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 publication “The Future of The Internet and How To Stop It,” in which Zittrain distinguishes between a generative device and a tethered device.

A tethered device is locked down and controlled entirely by the maker, like, for example, your toaster. You use your toaster exactly how the manufacturers intended. Your iPhone is also a fairly tethered device; you only use it for what Apple allows via the app store, and, at any point, Apple can reconfigure settings remotely.

A generative device, on the other hand, is open and accessible to modifications by the user, who has full control. Your laptop is a generative device; you can write and run code on it that the designers and manufacturers may never have imagined. The freedom to tinker and modify produces innovations independent of centralized, authoritative control. A user can take the resources of a generative device like the computer, and leverage them to implement new ideas.

Consider education in these terms. A tethered education is one that you consume as is, as the dictated by the maker. A generative education is participatory, one in which you leverage the resources of the University to experiment and test ideas. Yale has both of these on campus now, but it shouldn’t in the future. The tethered education should go online where it is cheapest – and arguably better – and Yale’s campus should exclusively focus on generativity.

The most egregious example of a tethered education is the lecture. The lecture invites no generativity: sitting, listening, memorizing and filling out exams doesn’t invite the student to tinker or modify knowledge to realize new ideas. It is my hope that the lecture goes the way of the horse and buggy — and as lecturers seek end of term feedback, they should heed Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Every course that is more focused on disseminating knowledge than learning experientially should become a MOOC. If the course involves problem sets with clear right and wrong answers, it can be a MOOC. If the course has an exam, it can probably be a MOOC. This is consumable knowledge, and should be consumed as cheaply as possible: online. Students should take relevant MOOCs before coming to Yale, so that they have the foundation necessary to join a campus optimized for generativity.

Then, when you come to Yale, you are given access to buildings, professors, peers and other resources. This is like being given a computer; you are told to freely write and run your own code for this platform. Your sole responsibility should be to tinker, to create, to invent. The extracurriculars, small seminars, independent studies and thesis groups we currently have should all remain, and we would have more time for them. In each class, students would be assessed solely on their portfolio of creations: new research, engineered prototypes, architectural blueprints, feature films, books, software, sculptures. Our time here together is scarce, and should be optimized for this collaboration, research and creation.

MOOCs and the technology enabling them aren’t inconveniences; they enable a revolution that requires a reimagining of Yale education. With strong leadership, Yale can provide the best of both educations: leading MOOCs free to the world, and the most innovative campus.

Let's Reimagine Yale Education was published on Miles Grimshaw

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