As elegantly produced as movies and as engaging as great novels

MIT professor Woodie Flowers argues that higher education’s current approach to online learning is misguided:

We decided to assume that the world could hardly wait to see our huge pile of PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, classroom locations, teaching assistant lists, and other assorted bits of information about our courses.

Instead, universities should produce new learning materials specifically for the online world:

In their highly developed form, learning materials would be as elegantly produced as movies and video games and would be as engaging as a great novel. They would be ‘smart’ to both accommodate the learners’ varied styles and yield data to facilitate their continuous improvement.

Each year, 600,000 first-year college students take calculus; 250,000 fail. At $2000/failed-course, that is half-a-billion dollars. That happens to be the approximate cost of the movie Avatar, a movie that took a thousand people four years to make. Many of those involved in the movie were the best in their field. The present worth of losses of $500 million/year, especially at current discount rates, is an enormous number…. even a $100 million investment could cut the calculus failure rate in half.

Online courses are to offline courses as movies are to plays. The marginal cost of delivering online courses is minimal. The potential audience is everyone with a smartphones and an internet connection – about 1.5 billion people today and growing quickly. There is no reason we shouldn’t be investing as much to produce online courses as we do to produce Hollywood movies.

Who should learn to program?

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the tech world and beyond about getting more people to learn computer programming. I think this is a worthy goal*, but the question should be considered from various angles.

1. Jobs & the economy. Businesses all over the world need more programmers. Every company I know is hiring engineers (e.g. see this list of NY tech startups). Top programmers can make $100K+ right out of college. Yet there were only about 14,000 computer science (CS) majors last year. Meanwhile about 40,000 people got law degrees even though demand for lawyers has been shrinking. America is suffering from what economists call structural unemployment:  jobs are available but our labor force isn’t trained for those jobs.

2. Programming is a great foundation for a tech/startup career. CS is a great foundation to do other things in tech industry like starting a tech company (although I’d argue that design is an increasingly valuable foundation for web startups). I suspect one of the reasons for the low number of CS majors is people don’t realize all the non-programming opportunities that are opened up by a background in programming.

3. Programming is an important part of being “culturally literate.” Algorithmic thinking is as fundamental a type of thinking as mathematical thinking. For example, Daniel Dennett convincingly argues that the best way to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution is by thinking of it as an algorithm. (I haven’t read it yet but I’m told the premise of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science is that algorithmic methods should be applied much more broadly across the sciences). Teaching algorithmic thinking – which is what CS does – should be a core part of a liberal arts education.

4. Programming is a great activity.  Most people who program describe themselves as entering a mental flow state where they are intensely immersed and time seems to fly by. It feels similar to reading a great book. You also feel great afterwards – it is the mental equivalent of going to the gym.

5. Should non-technical people at tech startups learn to code? This is where I disagree with some of the conventional wisdom. Certainly it is worthwhile learning programming, at least for reasons 3 & 4 above. You should realize, however, that to become a good programmer takes thousands of hours of practice. I’d also argue that if you are a non-technical person working at a web company the the first thing you should learn is internet architecture (DNS, http, html, web servers, database, TCP/UDP, IP, etc). Learning some programming is good too, to help relate to technical colleagues. But if your goal is to build a large-scale web service, your time as a non-technical person is better spent recruiting people who have been coding for years.

* Disclosure: I’m an investor via Founder Collective in two companies related to teaching programming:  Codecademy and Hacker School.

MIT is a national treasure

My friend and business partner Tom Pinckney started two companies with me and one company before. He invented many non-trivial patented inventions and raised many millions of dollars in venture capital, and returned capital to those investors many times over.

He got his Bachelors and Master degrees from MIT. He’s the nicest, smartest, and most decent guy you’ll ever meet.

But my favorite thing about Tom is he never got he never got a high school degree.  High school students today optimize their grades and SATs and after school activities. They speak French and Chinese, play piano and paint abstract art.  They dance around and play hockey and act like they help homeless people.

Tom grew up in rural South Carolina and mostly stayed at home writing video games on his Apple II.  There was no place nearby to go to high school. He took a few community college classes but none of those places could give him a high school degree. It didn’t really matter – all he wanted to do was program computers.  So when it came time to apply to college, Tom just printed out a pile of code he wrote and sent it to colleges.

Stanford, Berkeley and everyone else summarily dismissed his application on technical grounds – he didn’t have a high school diploma.

MIT looked at his code and said, “we like it” – we accept you.

For his Masters the best four CS schools – Stanford, Berkeley, Carniegie Mellon, and MIT — all recruited Tom  He stayed at MIT, the school that gave him a chance without a high school degree.

MIT is a national treasure.  If you believe in meritocracy and the American dream, you believe in MIT.