by Dale J. Stephens
October 8, 2012

from KurzweilAI Website



Dale J. Stephens leads UnCollege, the social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success. His first book, Hacking Your Education, will be published by Penguin in 2013.




Student/teacher interaction

ďWhat about student/teacher interaction? What about building a social and professional network? How can you get a job without a degree? How will you know youíre succeeding without grades?Ē

Every seasoned supporter of self-directed education has faced questions like this.


If you havenít yet, you will. Trust me.


People often have a hard time understanding how certain elements of education can flourish outside of classrooms. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have found creative solutions - cooperative classes for varying subjects, speech and debate leagues, field trip groups - that decentralize and expand the learning experience.


But what about higher education? Can all the benefits that society associates with traditional higher education be provided and even exceeded with non-traditional methods?


The purpose of this post is to look at how startups are doing just that.


UnCollege has written posts with an in-depth look at specific startups, such as Udacity, but here weíre going to take a high-level approach and see how the startup community is providing benefits that traditional higher education institutions claim to have a monopoly on.


Weíll do this by focusing on their solutions for content delivery, social interaction, professional feedback, and certification.





Content delivery

If youíve been following trends in higher education at all, the idea that universities donít have an edge on content delivery wonít be surprising to you.


Institutionalized-ed says that students should learn in a way that allows them to successfully regurgitate information via testing and exams. Decentralized education says let the student learn in a way that allows them to master the information, not just regurgitate it..


The content is the part of the university that has become most decentralized - it started more than 10 years ago with MITís OpenCourseWare and has continued from there.

  • Code School is all about not just learning but creation... Students have a chance to learn and then implement their knowledge throughout the course, so that upon completion the student not only has a workable knowledge of the material, but also the tools to apply it in the real world.

  • Udacity emphasizes mastery learning to make sure that students have multiple attempts to demonstrate their new knowledge and only move on when they have completely mastered a subject.

While the content exists, one problem that hasnít yet been solved is curation - when exploring the Internet, how do you find learning content?


And more importantly, what is good and true?


Startups like or Learnist are starting to make headway in this area but itís still a very young space.





Building a community

Campus settings give students the benefit of socializing and networking with other students and teachers. Startups take on this challenge in a variety of ways.

  • Livemocha is an online language learning platform. Cultivating a community of language-learners is an important part of their model. They provide a stimulating and safe environment for students to practice their skills with native speakers or tutors.

  • is an online network of local groups. You can start or find a group in your area with a huge variety of interests - everything from languages to dancing to education to politics, and lots in between. Udacity even has meetup groups in 292 cities where students can interact and supplement their courses.

  • The Open University offers 600+ online courses. They have student forums where students can share and discuss any topics of interest to them.

  • lets you convert facebook into study mode to connect with students and tutors around the world.

  • is a social learning network where students can ask questions, give help, and connect to other students studying the same subject.

Itís easy to see that startups actually have the potential to connect students to a much wider network than is available on campus.


Students are able to communicate with other students and teachers all around the world, and can also access face-to-face groups using However, this space is still very young.


I envision a day where you can pull out your iPhone, open an app, and walk down to your local coffee shop for a class discussion.






Feedback in this case is any way for a student to track and interpret his or her progress. Most non-institutional courses donít involve grades.


How can students evaluate their knowledge?

  • Livemocha students receive instant feedback through their interaction with native speakers and tutors.

  • Udacity has quizzes built into their videos to ensure that you are understanding the material along the way. There are also problem sets but both quizzes and problem sets are optional and are meant to enhance your learning. Also they offer final exams at the end of the course.

  • Code Hero has interactive exercises built into their courses that students must successfully complete before moving on. This allows the students to know theyíve mastered the content before moving on.

In reality, the feedback loop in non-traditional courses tends to be much shorter and more meaningful than a traditional grading system.


Students are able to keep a much closer track of their progress, and the feedback is generally more effective. Correction from a native speaker is far more beneficial than an A to F grade on a language exam. Review from multiple sources is much more beneficial than a grade from one instructor.


One problem in the feedback system that has not been addressed is the role of mentoring and coaching traditionally provided by a teacher.. Companies like are starting to work towards a solution on this but are a long ways from ubiquity.







This is a big one.


Most people would argue that taking online courses that donít confer college credit is not a very smart move. After all, credits lead to degrees. All employers are looking for degrees, right?


That discussion is for another time, but startups are providing records and certifications in a variety of ways.

  • Smarterer allows you to take tests in order to prove your skills in a wide span of subjects - from facebook to CSS to English for Business. You can share your scores, and recruiters can even evaluate candidates by comparing Smarterer scores.

  • Udacity will give studentsí resumes to over 20 partner companies. Their course certifications are recognized by major technology companies who are actively recruiting from the Udacity student body.

  • edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard, is awarding certificates to students who show a mastery of the subject of their course.

  • Coursera offers a certificate of completion for some of their courses.

  • Code Hero awards badges when a course is completed.

All these certifications can be compiled into an online or hard copy portfolio. This portfolio can function as your education transcript for personal use or to provide to future employers.


Alternatively, it is also possible to take free courses and then take an exam to receive college credit in those subjects.