A few months ago I was interviewed by the  guys from the Business Innovation Factory.  We talked about a variety of things, including the transactional nature of college education today (when it should be a transformational experience).  At some point in the interview, they asked me to explain how I am “hacking” education.

This is an interesting phrase and It gave me a bit of a pause, “am I hacking education?”  What exactly would that mean?  There are many ways we can consider the phraseology of hacking. Some connotations of hacking are positive and some are negative. A lot depends on the perspective. If you think there’s nothing wrong with education. Then “hacking education” would be seen as derogatory — someone who is working outside the accepted structures and norms of the environment.  In an earlier post, Everybody Teaches Everybody Learns, I mentioned that it’s difficult to be a “prophet in your own land.” As soon as you mention changing the system, you imply (whether you mean to or not) that there’s something wrong with the current system, which in turn seems to imply someone is not doing their job.

On the other hand, suppose we see “hacking” education from the point of view of someone who thinks education is broken.  If this is the case, then you may consider hacking to be an alternate definition: an elegant solution to a difficult problem.

Now, the group in charge rarely wants their system to be hacked.  Apple doesn’t want the iPhone to be hacked.  The music industry doesn’t want their DRM to be hacked.  Many administrators and faculty don’t want higher education to be hacked.  And yet there are those of us working within the system, who are trying to find that “elegant solution” to move this mountain.

Why do I think the system of higher education needs a good hack?  In my opinion, education should be a transformational experience, but somewhere along the way, higher education became transactional: student pays x dollars, completes x courses, receives (insert name) degree. Instructor creates several “hoops” for students to jump through. Students jump through these hoops. They receive credit.

I hear over and over that the most important skill we can teach students is how to learn.  But think about the last time YOU sat down with a textbook to learn something. Let me guess – it was the last time you were in school?  Outside of academia (in the “real world”), we learn by discussing problems with our social networks. We learn by trial and error. We learn by exploring and by experience.  We learn by play.  We learn from reading (from a variety of sources, many of them on the Internet).  We learn from watching videos.  When did higher education lose this?

Learning in education is judged, for the most part, by strange transactions between the student and the instructor: papers are submitted, homework is completed, and discussions are moderated. On exams, we look for holes in what the student may know.  Maybe (watch out, radical unjustified idea coming) we should just be asking one thing: Tell me what you have learned. If it’s enough, you pass.  If it’s not enough, you keep learning.

Let’s get back to this transactional system of education.  Consider the discipline-silos of higher ed.  In elementary school (you know, when students still enjoy learning) the instructor teaches a variety of subjects to the same group of students.  If we ignore NCLB and high-stakes testing, we can imagine that these instructors are able to weave subjects together in a cohesive manner and plan class time around themes.  A theme might include a blend of English, science, humanities and mathematics.   In higher ed, we’ve separated all the ingredients.  Math, English, Chemistry, Humanities, Philosophy, Economics, … these are all stand-alone subjects.  In many of these disciplines (math and science in particular) the huge content requirements (breadth not depth) leave little room to stretch outside the discipline.  Is this still appropriate today?  Like lonely ingredients, the disciplines are, by themselves, bland.

As the lines between careers become more blurred, the courses we teach in the discipline-silos of Higher Ed become increasingly removed from reality. Although we do strive to create programs that are well-rounded (i.e. the foundation courses of Liberal Arts), each individual course exists in something of a contextual vacuum.  To prepare students to understand the complexity of our modern society, the core liberal arts curricula should include courses like :

  • Trend Analysis (Math + History)
  • Biology and Human Enhancement (Biology + Philosophy)
  • Science of Exercise (Science + Health & PE)
  • Exploring Water Issues (Science + Politics)
  • Design and Digital Presentations (Graphic Design + Communication)
  • Data Analysis and Information Presentation (Statistics, Graphic Design, and Communication)
  • Exploring Recycling and Refuse (Science, Government, and Humanities)
  • Chemistry of Nutrition (Chemistry + Health & PE)
  • Poverty and World Culture (Humanities, Government, and Sociology)
  • Sociology and Psychology of the Web (Sociology + Psychology)
  • How Computers Think (CIS + Philosophy)
  • Art, Media, and Copyright (Fine Arts + Law)
  • Writing for the Digital Age (CIS + Communication + English)
  • Energy (Physics, Chemistry, and Government)
  • Information, Query, and Synthesis (Literacy, Logic, English)

There are two big problems with teaching these courses.  First, most instructors would feel uncomfortable crossing these discipline lines.  That’s not to say they wouldn’t be willing, but it would require some learning and retraining at the faculty level (and that costs money).  Second?  Transferability.  For example, at community colleges, all of our courses are ultimately given final judgment on one tenet:  Does this class transfer? If the answer to this last question will be no, there’s little point in going through the work to walk a proposed course through the approval process.

We need a swift, national movement to create a set of universally-transferable, interdisciplinary, 21st century courses so that any school with faculty who are ABLE to teach these courses can immediately BEGIN teaching these courses. But how to do it?

Here’s my proposed higher education hack:

In a manner similar to Perkins funding, suppose the government offered an extra federal education stipend to any college or university that offers at least 5 of the courses on the interdisciplinary list (what list? well, some group of “experts” would have to propose the master list).  Instantly, every college in the country would begin scheming about ways to get their faculty ready to teach these courses. Within a year or two, most colleges would have these courses on the books, and they would be immediately transferable.