Need-to-Know News: Udacity’s New Nanodegree Plus with Money-Back Guarantee, Non-traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny & Khan Academy Seeks Patent for Teaching Methods

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

News1. Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus Program
Udacity launched “NanoDegree Plus” this week—an enhancement available with four of their Nanodegree programs. The ‘plus’ is a guarantee that students “get hired within 6 months of graduating or receive a 100% tuition refund”.  Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity states that Udacity’s guarantee is a “crisper” way for his institution to persuade students to attend. He also hopes his idea of guaranteeing results (a job) is something all college presidents will consider (Ruff, 2016).

The plus program includes robust features with services that include access to career coaches, interview resources including mock interview opportunities and dedicated placement team support—at a cost of $299/ month. The programs are self-paced and typically take between 6 and 8 months to complete. Udacity’s other Nanodegree programs are $200 per month and do not offer the same services as the plus program, but do offer an incentive “graduate within 12 months and receive a 50% refund on tuition“.

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Screen shot of Udacity’s web page promoting Nanodegree Plus

Insight: Udacity’s guarantee is bold; and not surprisingly is drawing criticism. One college president called it “gimmicky”, yet a fellow at Brookings Institute is positive, stating that guarantees like Udacity’s “are a market solution to temper the risk that students face when they choose to invest in higher education”. Though in defense of higher education programs, what Udacity offers is far different from undergraduate education. Udacity program’s are narrow in focus and vocational in nature. What is a positive of the plus programs are the support services offered. It’s these services that can make a difference—help students gain confidence, skills in how to market themselves, and be career-ready.

2. Non-Traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny
Non-traditional forms of higher education, including competency-based programs are under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Institutions offering non-traditional degree programs may not be eligible for financial disbursements if they don’t meet the criteria of Title IV aid. The DOE’s Inspector General has conducted several audits, one  currently underway with Western Governor’s University (WGU), a non-profit who provides non-traditional education to over 64,000 enrolled students (Fain, 2016). Courses at WGU are not tied to the traditional credit-hour, but instead students take self-paced online courses, engage with mentors when help is needed, and complete assessments when confident they have mastered course material.

The investigation into these non-traditional programs’ eligibility is at odds with the current administration’s push to promote non-traditional degree pathways, apparent by the DOE’s website as well as recent grants to encourage higher education institutions to develop alternative pathways for degree-seeking students. Education leaders will be watching closely as many are developing alternative degree-programs as Purdue University is with its competency-based bachelor’s degree, or others that involve MOOCs such as ASU’s Global Freshman Academy.

Insight:  The discrepancy within the DOE demonstrates the gap between existing legislation for traditional education programs and new programs that reflect our open and digital culture. Education organizations need to implement systems that allow them to adapt more fluidly.

index3. Khan Academy Seeks Patent on its Instructional Methods
Khan academy is filing a patent application for its method of showing one of two explanatory videos based upon a student’s response to a question posed after the student watches an initial topic-specific, instructional video. Many experts are confused by Khan’s move, given Khan’s open strategy and their mission to “provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere”. Yet Khan claims it’s a defensive move, a strategy to avoid being sued in the future from potential  competitors—other online education providers who might try to sue Khan Academy claiming it is infringing on their propriety methods.

Wording from Khan’s patent application:

Systems and methods are provided for comparing different videos pertaining to a topic. Two different versions of an educational video may be compared using split comparison testing. A set of questions may be provided along with each video about the topic taught in the video. Users may view one of the videos and answer the questions. Data about the user responses may be aggregated and used to determine which video more effectively conveys information to the viewer based on the question responses. — United States Patent Application #20150310753

Insight: A prudent, strategic move.

Why MOOCs Are Hindering and Not Helping Higher Ed

mooc_web_final_wheel03The Chronicles’ web-diagram Major players in the MOOC Universe published this week, though beautiful to look at, adds to the confusion about what MOOCs are and are not. This confusion is no doubt a significant hindrance to constructive dialogue that educators are having about online learning; including how to leverage technology to improve access, quality and lower costs. The Chronicle is not alone in [unknowingly] promoting myths about MOOCs, which is not helping to move the discussions forward.

Several institutions and platforms associated with MOOCs quite often have little to do with MOOCs.  Khan Academy for instance, and even San Jose University’s pilot project San Jose State Plus are two programs that don’t follow the MOOC model. These misconceptions among others, divert attention away from the instructional and pedagogical models that can provide solutions. Online learning in small classes for example. Small online classes do not resemble MOOCs at all. The closed, online class, with a sound instructional plan, allows faculty to provide feedback and support to students, as well as provide opportunities for small group collaboration guided by the instructor. Another format, the blended model, combines face-to-face class time with web-based instruction. The blended model has proven to be effective in reducing costs and maintaining, and in some cases improving learning outcomes over traditional instructional methods. For further reading on blended learning click here.

San Jose Pilot Program: Not a MOOC
One significant error in recent articles, the Chronicles’ diagram included, is identifying San Jose State University as a MOOC player. There is a partnership between San Jose and Udacity as the link in the image shows, though the connection involves a pilot project with three math courses co-created between the two. Yet the courses are not MOOCs; they  don’t adhere to the MOOC model whatsoever. The classes in San Jose’s pilot were not massive—each had less than 100 students. Classes were closed—open only to high school students, community college students and members of the armed forces. Enrolled students participated within the schools’ learning platform where they could engage in discussion forums with the professor and peers. Yet the key differential was the academic support available to students. Students had access to a help line, instructor-facilitated peer meetings and even outreach counselors for those struggling with the content. Far from a MOOC, this model does provide the instructional support and feedback necessary for a successful college-level learning experience. Furthermore, San Jose’s pilot is an excellent example of a model for online learning that can be effective, though many outsiders are unaware of its instructional strategy.

Khan Academy: Also not a MOOC
Though Khan Academy is often described as a MOOC, it’s not even close. It’s not the first time that Khan Academy has been classified as a MOOC. Khan Academy is a robust library of open education resources that can be accessed by students, institutions, or anyone—for free. That’s it. It’s not a course with a start date and end date. Though it does include resources for teachers to build an instructional strategy of their own, the platform primarily is a repository for a collection of short videos that focus on a specific topic. No MOOCs here. Even Sal Khan emphasizes that his platform is not MOOC, but is what he calls a “transplantation” of a traditional course.

MOOC Players that Aren’t
Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke and founder of Hastac appears to be associated with the MOOC players as per The Chronicles’ diagram. Yet Dr. Davidson has little if anything to do with the MOOC movement. She was part of a small group that crafted a controversial Bill of Rights for online students, yet her involvement ends there. Davidson was quite surprised to find herself featured in the lineup of individuals associated with MOOCs in the web-diagram, describing it as “comical” in a blog post on Hastacs’ site—and even admits to feeling ambivalent towards MOOCs, with “more than a healthy degree of skepticism”.

Technology is a Tool
My point here is not to highlight all that is wrong with the web-diagram in question, or the reporting of the issues elsewhere, but to emphasize that misconceptions about online learning, MOOCS included, that are likely impeding constructive conversations within education circles. The Chronicle and other news organizations are not intentionally writing to deceive, but are caught up in MOOC mania as we all are. MOOCs will not solve the challenges of access, cost control and quality that institutions are struggling with, yet we need to be well informed about the technology, and what it can deliver.  It’s also helpful to remember that technological applications are tools to solve problems. The first step is identifying and analyzing what the problem is, determining the needs, then analyzing potential solutions thoroughly before jumping to a solution. Starting with the solution, and working backwards rarely works.

How the Student Voice Can Make Education Better

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of BooksHow can school be better?  Student answers: “More practical courses (like consumer math, finances, life skills)“, “Internships and real-world experiences“, “Students grouped not by age, but ability and interest“, “High expectations but more freedom” and “Meaningful work [with a] purpose; no more busy work; students need to be able to make connections (esp[ecially] to real-world)”. Student responses in class, IB Theory of Knowledge, as recorded in a teacher’s blog post, FutureSchool: A Teen’s Perspective.

I wrote in my last post about a vision for the future of education—Sal Khan’s vision of a One World Schoolhouse. It seems the education community didn’t take him seriously, reviews were mixed on his idea for reforming K-12 and higher education. Khan proposes K-12 classrooms not be formed on ages or grades, but a mix of students working collaboratively, with opportunities for hands-on [practical] learning. Khan’s view includes setting the bar high for all students, and giving college students real world experience through meaningful internships. Which is why when I read the student comments in the blog post mentioned above, I was intrigued—what students want in education was almost identical to Khan’s vision for education. This got me thinking about the voice of students. Students are perceptive and intelligent. Yet in discussions about education reform, students are often overlooked, not included, or at least not integrated in the process. Their voices are muffled, perhaps even moderated. Furthermore, students rarely have the opportunity to identify factors contributing to real-world problems, to explore and analyze solutions.

Value of the Student Voice
The student voice as mentioned, is garbled at best, which is [unfortunately] a sign of an institution-focused education system. Which brings me to the purpose of this post, to highlight the value of the ‘student voice’ and provide suggestions on how to include students in the reform process. I’ll also share recent sound bites of student voices from recent events in higher education venues.

Stakeholders in Education
Students have a significant stake in the education system, in terms of their time, energy, intellectual development and money. They are primary stakeholders, where stakeholders are defined as individuals or entities who stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of a system or an organization. Other primary stakeholders include faculty, administrators, and government bodies, depending upon the type of institution. There is an outer circle of stakeholders in higher education that includes its surrounding community, businesses, and the vendors and suppliers of products and services that support the institution. K-12 institutions have another unique set of primary and secondary stakeholders that differs from higher education, though the student is still central.

Group of teenage students enjoying outside.The Problem Solving Process
As stakeholders, students have the potential to be a valuable resource in all phases of the reform process. The process, ideally should include not just solutions but steps to address the problem in its entirety:

1) identifying the purpose of  education in the 21st Century.
2) determining the current problem(s) and barriers to achieving the identified purpose.
3) developing alternatives and finding solutions.

Who better than students to describe the school experience, identify what doesn’t work and why, describe what they need to learn and aren’t, explore options for a revised experience, and evaluate alternatives.  I’m speaking here of high school and young adult college students. It is these stakeholders who are experiencing first hand the education provided, and are the ones that are failing, frustrated, dropping out of college and high school, are not prepared for college, are bored, and/or can’t find a job. However, even successful students are perceptive enough to identify with the challenges many of their peers are facing.

The Student Voice in Higher Ed
Granted, some organizations do try to include students in the reform process. Just last month for instance, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, whose mission is to ‘grow access and success by eliminating unnecessary hurdles to affordability in higher education‘, hosted a day long event with key players [terminology from their website] in California’s higher education system. The event, Re:boot California Higher Education purpose was to bring together a group of stakeholders [policymakers, faculty, politicians, students and representatives from Coursera and Udacity] and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education and lower the costs for higher education.

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Image from Twenty Million Minds website featuring the Key Players at the event

However, student contribution was minimal. The agenda devoted fifteen minutes to three students speaking of their school experience. The fifteen minutes represented 5% of time allocated to discussion on these issues. Hillary Hill one of the three, spoke as the voice of thousands of students in the California public higher ed system. Hill spoke of the online course she took from a local community college, which apparently was the only way she could get the prerequisite needed to transfer into her major (Selingo, 2013). Hill shed light on the fact that classes are over-crowded, which is delaying time to graduation. I’m not sure this was the most effective use of students time or talent, to state the obvious. Alas, this symposium, like many similar events, featured much discussion, and no action (Watters, 2013).

Another significant event, which occurred recently, the meeting to create a Learner Bill of Rights for Learning in a Digital Age, was most irksome in that it included not one student, but a group of twelve: educators, technologists and journalists including Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity and instigator of the event. The goal of the meeting was quite noble “to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally connected world of the present and beyond” (Lederman, 2013.)  It was a significant omission [bordering on arrogance] not to include any students in the discussion, which negates the value of this document altogether.

Suggestions for Integrating Students in Problem Solving
I don’t have the answers for transforming education, though I see the potential that lies in student voices that is going unheeded for the most part. This post is meant to encourage readers to consider how students might be part of the bigger picture of education transformation, and problem solving in general. Perhaps strategic analysis and planning skill development needs to be integrated into the curriculum that will teach students to be effective problem solvers. Students would benefit from learning how to identify and analyze  problems and the effects. Perhaps even engage students in real world problems, create teams that work with businesses or organizations where students work together to develop and implement viable solutions. An example of a real-world, hands-on team approach was in the course Designing a New Learning Environment. Though team participants represented a spectrum of ages and professions, college-age students were among the many who contributed.

Students can be part of the solution to transform education, they can identify and analyze problems, provide alternatives and explore solutions. All too often the voice of the student goes unheeded. My hope is that students don’t give up on higher education institutions, will contribute to finding a way to keep education relevant and meaningful for the 21st century, but that goes both ways.


Can We Transform Education with Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse?

As our world grows smaller and the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse”  Sal Khan.

globe_mouseI am a big fan of Khan Academy. I turned my youngest two teenagers onto Khan’s videos when they were struggling with their Calculus homework, which they shared with their friends, then their classmates and finally their teachers. That is when I knew Khan Academy was going to be big—when an online platform that I thought was useful and ‘cool’, was good enough to be endorsed by my kids.

Which is why I read the book The One World School House: Education Reimagined written by the founder himself, Sal Khan. Khan shares how Khan Academy came to be by tutoring his niece, and how he eventually quit his job as hedge fund analyst to launch Khan Academy and filmed hundreds of videos in his closet. What comes through the pages is the passion Khan has for education, his drive to transform, and provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan, p 4).  In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, but I focus on Khan’s vision for classrooms of the future, for an education system that is almost a utopian one, featuring the ‘ideal’ where students learn and grow at their own pace, at no cost, anywhere in the world.

I’ll outline Khan’s vision for K-12 and higher education, which is based on the Khan Academy philosophy, and I’ll examine why it is a worthwhile to consider his vision, even if unrealistic. A utopian view, which assumes that digital technology [in this case the Internet], can provide a near perfect, or ideal education scenario for K-12 and college students, happens to be this week’s topic in, e-Learning and Digital Cultures, at Coursera’s #edcmooc. In the course we are examining technology and its impact on cultures, societies and communities, and specifically what education looks like from a utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) and dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture) viewpoint. Khan does present a utopian vision which has come under criticism, (Coulson, 2012), (Wan, 2012), and though I agree that Khan’s strategy is far-fetched, there is value in considering what ‘perfect’ conditions look like in a classroom.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 4.23.40 PMSnapshot of the One World Schoolhouse
Before I analyze Khan’s vision of the one world schoolhouse, I’ll review Khan’s journey to the Academy. What Sal Khan is promoting is more than a library of videos, which at this point holds 3,900 lessons on subjects of math, science, economics, computer science and the humanities; Sal is promoting a pedagogy where  the learner is self-directed, in the center of the learning paradigm, and teachers, act as mentors and guides rather than directors of learning (p 242).  Sal also believes that students can be inherently motivated when the conditions of learning are right, where they can work at their own pace, experience success and are not grouped by ability or age.

Classrooms of the Future: Utopia?
One cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of Khan’s vision of education. Students of all ages combined in class, spending only one or two hours on lessons, and spending the rest of the school day with hands-on learning and projects. Standardized tests would be few, and transcripts a thing of the past.

In Khan’s vision of a K-12 classroom, learning is active. Students progress at their own pace, only moving ahead when they have mastered the concepts. In this model, older students assume more responsibility, mentor and help younger students. This idea has considerable merits, as teaching others a concept helps to reinforce one’s own learning. It removes the focus from self to others, in this case older to younger students, which can foster leadership and confidence.

The classes are large, with 100 students, yet there are five teachers that mentor and support, guide and provide feedback to small groups of students. Other characteristics of Khan’s classroom:

  • No transcripts, or letter grades but instead “two things: a running, multi-year narrative not only of what a student has learned by how she learned it, and a portfolio of a student’s work” (p 137).
  • At any given time in the school day: 1/5 of students doing computer-based lessons, 1/5 of students playing games that reinforce concepts, 1/5 students building robots, or constructing structures with Lego, (making something), 1/5 art or creative writing, and 1/5 on music.

Vision for Higher Education
Khan’s vision of higher education is grounded not in grades and transcripts, but in work experience, hands-on experience with lengthy internships of five or six months where students work in meaningful positions where skills are learned and applied alongside experts in the field. These are not summer, make-work projects, but paid positions. Between internships, students don’t attend lectures but study, learn, and collaborate, yet take rigorous assessments to show that they can go deep in certain academic areas (p 152).

“End”, by mrjoro, on Flickr.

Utopia and Dystopia Explored in Education
Are these utopian vision of education? Impossible ideals, where technology is not the focus, but the vehicle for bringing education to everyone, yet still with face-to-face interaction? I refer to utopia here in the context of perfect K-12 and higher education systems, in contrast to dystopia, which some would say is where education systems in the US are heading. Clay Shirky, a writer and journalist who writes frequently about the effects of the Internet on society and culture, calls the current higher education system “broken, expensive, (he calls it a ‘cost disease’), elitist and ineffective in developing an intellectual community” (Shirky, 2012), which does lean towards a dystopian view. Dystopia, according to the definition provided Hand & Sandywell’s paper, is one that includes anti-democratic properties, is corrupt, and would be controlled for purposes other than providing a sound and comprehensive education for students (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). However, it is the concept of utopia that might be exactly what we need when aiming to transform education—what could it be? How can technology enhance education for all? What if there were no constraints, how would we create a new system with the technology we have?

Why we Need a Utopian View
Which is why I support the vision—the ideal, such as the one that Khan proposes, because we need creative solutions and thinkers to construct new models for education–visions that inspire and make us think differently. It is the bold thinkers; the ones with seemingly crazy ideas, that most say will never work, that do create change and provide solutions. I think of William Murdoch and his prototype for a locomotive steam engine in 1784, and the Wright brothers with their flying machines. These visionaries had utopian-like views of people moving around the country in matter of hours rather than weeks or months. Crazy ideas? At the time yes.

Closing Thoughts
While Khan’s views may be considered impossible, radical, or completely unrealistic, I believe we need these visionaries. Though realistically we know utopia is a fictitious concept we create, but it helps build a new and fresh perspective on problems that need solving. It is visionaries like Khan that can help get us there. I’ll leave you with two other visions, the first an advertisement on YouTube video, created by Corning, A Day Made of Glass. This is a must see for the ‘vision’ of education (5 minute video below).

The second is an open, online class called Designing a New Learning Environment, led last year by Stanford professor, Dr. Paul Kim is Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean for Stanford University School of Education, “The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow.”  Click here to go to the web page and view the completed [and inspiring] video projects created by participants.

View Corning’s video for a glimpse of the Future of Education


  • Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as cosmopolis or citadel: On the democratizing and de-democratizing logics of the Internet, or, toward a critique of the new technological fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 1-2: 197-225. (p.205-6)
  • Designing a New Learning Environment 2012, Open, Online Course, Stanford University, Dr. Kim
  • Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, (2012),  Blog post: Clay Shirky

Four Really ‘Good Reads’ for Educators Over the Holidays

The holidays; time to recharge the batteries, enjoy, relax, and for some it’s a time to catch up on that list of books waiting to be read. I usually have an ambitious to-read list over the two-week break, this year is no exception. Several education related books are on the list that I discovered either through a book review in the Sunday paper or through a colleague’s recommendation.  I thought I’d share just in case there are readers out there looking for a good read this holiday season.

Below are the four books on my list.  Enjoy!

The One World Schoolhouse: Education ReimaginedThe One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
Released in October, the reviews so far are very favorable. On Amazon 58 readers give it 5/5 and Good Reads 4.8/5. I’ve been following Khan Academy since its inception and am impressed by the drive and tenacity of its founder Salman Khan. The venture is not-for-profit, Khan quit his job and took 10 months to film the videos for the platform in his apartment.

A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy, a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents, and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject; and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe. (

Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open KnowledgeOpening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge by Toru Iiyoshi, M.S. Vijay Kumar and John Seely Brown.

This book is a collection of essays by educators, technologists and researchers (including organizations and associations) involved in open education; it discusses the successes, challenges, and opportunities in the movement towards ‘open’. Looks like a helpful read for educators initiating, or involved in open programs in their own institutions.

In keeping with the theme of ‘open’, the book is available through the support of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, under a Creative Commons license at the MIT Press Web site,

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each OtherAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
The title is intriguing—does it not describe what happens when people hide behind their electronic devices? If you don’t have time to read the book, Turkle did an excellent TED talk on this topic,…

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication — and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have. (

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterHow Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
I first heard of this book after reading a review in the New York Times,…
and what piqued my interest was the well-known and much cited study, the marshmallow experiment of psychologist Walter Mischel. The study found that children who mustered the self-control to resist eating a marshmallow right away in return for two marshmallows later on, did better in school and were more successful as adults. Hmm…. Given today’s current culture, it will no doubt be a thought-provoking read.

In his new book, “How Children Succeed,” Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success. (

Any good reads you’d like to share?

You can view all my reviews at Good Reads here.