Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Half a billion in government sponsored online courses? This could be good.

We're talking about the White House proposal for an "Online Skills Laboratory." Just to get the political thing out of the way, unless you consider a consistent dose of skepticism to be such, you won't find political axe-grinding here. I do not make a habit of trusting politicians, and recommend the same to others. Whether they butcher the King's English or make it spill shafts of golden light from on high, they are still politicians and need to be held accountable to the electorate. I care about what they say they stand for, but I care a whole lot more about what they actually do. So I'm looking at this in a very pragmatic, and as I hope you'll see, a very non-partisan light.

Okay, now I can say it. I think this thing could be a good idea. One of the key roles of government when it does spend, as it will and it must, is to incentivize the right things. If you're actually sparking real economic growth, then the spending is in fact an investment. I can't really speak to the gazillion borrowed dollars this administration has so far committed to various and sundry, but here in this little corner of the world, a corner that I know something about, if the current federal gunslingers stick to the guns they've already drawn, they could very well shoot a bulls eye.

So what are they talking about? They're pushing something of a "public option" for online education, but let's break it down and see if it competes with an already healthy sector, or if it in fact sparks growth. First, let's look at how the thing is actually being described. Here's the wording from the proposal,* with bold added where I will make my comments below:

Create a New Online Skills Laboratory:

Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone. Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department's distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results.

Now let's take a look at how this all could work for good and not for evil. Admittedly, it will take a little imagination and a lot of work to flesh this out, but stay with me.

Skills. This is not primarily formal education, but a way to build up specific skills. These skills are not defined. But let's assume that we're talking about marketable skills. In fact, the President talks a lot about the need to "prepare our people with the skills they need to compete in this global economy."** Re-skilling the workforce is one of the most critical needs we have as a nation, and as an economy. The ability to move motivated, intelligent workers from one field that is shrinking (say, real estate) to another that is growing (say, healthcare) is huge. Finding those with the potential and the proclivity but without the pathway, and getting them into these real jobs, is also huge. We aren't doing any of this fast enough. Every tax dollar spent actually getting this done would very easily turn into ten or a hundred tax dollars later. Not to mention putting more real money into the economy. So how would it work?

Interactive software.
Not faculty-based. The software contemplated here, as I read it and then envision it, is your standard self-paced software, where the technology does the interacting. This just makes sense, because self-paced means it costs almost nothing to put lots of people through it, once a system is built. Universities don't work this way. MyMathLab from Pearson does work this way, and is a great product, but it's not designed to re-skill the workforce; it's a textbook supplement, and a homework engine. So what type of interactive software will work? Show me a system that fits what I'm describing below, and I'll help write a proposal to get it front and center. Somebody gets a good government contract. Maybe more than one somebody.

Tailored instruction. This is not cohort based. These are not the usual sort of courses. The opportunity is to build a system that can teach and measure the skills of individuals. So, imagine a process in which these "free" courses actually double as aptitude tests, so that students who excel can earn a credential of some sort, even a certificate, that shows that they're good at a particular skill. It helps them get jobs, or get scholarships, or get accepted into a program, or get a school loan. Imagine these courses bridging the college-readiness gap. Imagine a non-human-being-intensive system that creates the thoughtful movement of people with untapped abilities into fields where they can make a living, and make a difference. I can imagine it. I'm having a little trouble imagining the government running it, but if it's based on grant money, it needn't be government run. The content isn't defined, which worries me some. But it is targeting...

Working adults. The whole "rural areas" part makes little sense to me, as most rural areas are at least as well connected to the Internet these days as are inner cities. But the point is, if the effort can reach rural areas, it can reach any areas. The working adult target is the key. In fact, it ought to target any American who wants to learn marketable skills that can make an economic difference for them, and provide them...

New routes. This is telling. Community colleges and universities are old routes. The vision is, or should be, for a new way to get people started making a change, or get started on a career, or get started proving they have the ability to go to college. It's a route to take whether they can afford to go back to school or not, whether they are currently employed or not. The key, again, is the aptitude-test nature of the courses. If I can prove to myself and others that I can be, I ought to be, an IT professional or a nurse or an accountant, then I've got that start.

Available for modification. There's a whole set of assumptions embedded here, if this is a system and content that pretty much anyone can pick up and use. Some of these assumptions, maybe the most obvious ones, are anti-competitive. But it seems to me the most important assumption is that the Skills Lab is not now being seen as an entity that competes with universities or businesses. If the skills being developed, tested, and approved are the right ones, the important ones for the future, no one loses much by incorporating the product piecemeal, or making it work for them. The fact is, few companies and institutions really know how to build such things well, and those who do get paid to do it anyway. This Skills Lab proposes to pay them.

Defense, Education, and Labor. Could anything be more unwieldy than asking these departments to work together? Yes, actually, it could be. Add Health, Education, and Welfare. That's a notable absence--and a clue that it's not designed as an entitlement. The seed being sown here seems to be about, once again, marketable skills. Certainly defense drives a lot of jobs and is critical to our national future. Labor, if it doesn't get bogged down in too many union issues, could actually point people toward marketable skills as well. Education should care about measuring outcomes, and making sure it's all valid educationally.

Freely available. If this thing turns into a new entitlement like the old entitlements, then half a billion dollars will never cover the cost. But if it sticks to the budget and the apparent mission, it would not become an entitlement in the usual sense, nor would it in any large way undercut the vast majority of online products and courses already out there. People would be entitled to make the effort and take the course, in a software system that is not reliant on human grading, etc., but they would not be entitled to jobs, nor money, nor especially to...

Academic credit. Note that the language is about "exploring ways" to award credit. Not a credit giveaway. If the system described in the preceding paragraphs were a reality, then one option would be for community colleges or other institutions to accept those students who excel, perhaps on a probationary basis, and award them credit retroactively for their Skills Lab work, as long as they prove themselves on an ongoing basis. Regardless, it will need to be real academic credit, won by proving that skills have been gained. Because this is...

Based on achievement. Here is the part that makes the most sense to me, and gives me the most hope. If such a system is actually results-based, it will reward those who succeed and show promise, to the degree of their abilities, and leave those who can't achieve no worse off than they were before. Of course, the big temptation of a big government is try to keep anyone from failing to achieve. That would doom the whole project to mediocrity and make it ultimately worthless. But the language of this thing does not point in that direction. If it's really about results, this is huge. This is big. This could feed industries, help educational institutions, and energize the whole economic infrastructure.

Over ten years. I hate to be guilty of downplaying huge, huge dollars, as seems to be the norm with just about everyone these days who throws around trillion-dollar figures as though they were anywhere near everyday sort of numbers. But we're not talking about that kind of money. If I've done my math right, five hundred million dollars over ten years is fifty million a year. That's really pocket change for an effort of this scope. By way of comparison, the eleven Initial Public Offerings on the NYSE in the first half of this year raised an average of two hundred million each.***

So my view is that this effort has huge potential. If it's done right, and done well, and sticks to its guns (and its budget), it could be the best investment a government has proposed in a long, long time.

* Quoted from US Department of Education, Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Recess Packet document.

** http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Investing-in-Education-The-American-Graduation-Initiative/
*** http://www.nyse.com/press/1246875732166.html

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