Do Not Despair

Let us imagine the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2016. Universities are in crisis. Higher education is experiencing budget battles, downsizing of faculties, falling student enrollments, and cuts in research programs. Students are challenging the competence of their professors and new ventures are offering alternatives. Yes, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

The activities described here reflect three major tendencies: First, an attack on existing universities; second, innovative ways by which a few colleges respond; and, third, truly entrepreneurial ventures that transform teaching.


February 1, 2016—A coalition of education reform groups and technology firms this week invited college and high school students across the country to use cell phones to record unsatisfying lectures—and to transform the most boring of them into effective online learning resources. A newly launched “Gold from Garbage” YouTube channel, sponsored and supported by, seeks to attract hundreds of thousands of students each month to select the most dismal classes.

Each student in the five classes voted as most dull will receive a condolence prize of $10. The second round of prizes will go to students around the world who research the topics ostensibly covered in the least engaging lectures, and prepare brief videos or animations that impart the knowledge in a stimulating and accurate way. The top rated will earn their creators a prize of $200 and inclusion in the online curriculum of a newly launched online learning company . . . . (continued) 


February 2, 2016—Angry students swarmed a meeting of MegaStateU trustees today over a deadlocked proposal that would make “human capital investments” an alternative to crushing loan burdens. According to a spokesperson for one of the protesting groups, the impasse arose over the university’s refusal to accept contingent repayment alternatives, in which students would offer four percent of their earnings over a 10-year period, a model used to fund higher education by CareerConcepts in Europe and Lumni in Latin America. 

A related bone of contention has been the lack of university interest in “flexiwage,” a Singapore innovation that links the salaries of administrators and faculty to the rate of growth or decline in the private economy over the preceding year. “MegaStateUniversity administration and teaching staff have absolutely no incentive to keep the kind of teaching here updated to help us land good jobs . . . .” (continued)


February 4, 2016—The Young Foundation yesterday honored a “peer learning” venture formed by Cambridge University students for their measurable success in boosting English language reading and writing skills in ESL (English as a Second Language) households. The Foundation, which pioneered Social Impact Bonds as a way to encourage cost-saving innovations in public service delivery, awarded the prize upon verifying a 40 percent gain in English fluency by 500 randomly-chosen participating households, relative to a comparable control group of households in established ESL programs funded by Lambeth Borough Council. An apparent key to the literacy gains came from use of Skype-based language practice lessons, connecting university volunteers with the households, and an innovative language game for young children, developed by a Pakistani software developer whose $300 bid and 9.5 rating in persuaded the Cambridge group to . . . . (continued)


February 5, 2016–Five years after PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel encouraged nascent entrepreneurs to drop out of college, the first wave of Thiel Fellows are reaping gains from his advice. A controversial young education reform champion has netted more than $50 million from an IPO for a for-profit charter school venture, in which students in at-risk communities are vested as co-owners of their schools and their associated virtual learning ventures, with their share of profits rising in step with skills gains of their peers. In a follow-up to the IPO’s success, the venture’s founder announced yesterday that he will make a personal $1 million contribution to the Thiel Prize, enabling another four fellowships to be offered . . . . (continued)


February 6, 2016—The U.S. Chamber of Commerce kindled new debate over higher education budgets yesterday, with release of a survey of its members’ hiring patterns in 200 categories of technology-related jobs. It found a majority of member firms prefer to hire individuals holding recent certifications in the most sought-after skills, in contrast to applicants with four-year degrees. Brainbench’s tests, which average $35 in cost and have been taken online by more than a million jobseekers, grant proficiency certificates in more than 1000 fields. (Employers interviewing job applicants receive free “spot check” questions when meeting with Brainbench-certified prospects). “We find that the Brainbench certified applicants show a higher level of technical knowledge . . . . (continued)


February 7, 2016—A for-profit learning venture will be launched next month by more than 60 adjunct professors, who have decided to leave their untenured and increasingly precarious positions to offer skills valued in businesses adopting “results only work environments (ROWE).” In this spirit, the faculty of “Results for U” is tying its contingent compensation to demonstrated levels of student proficiency in specified skills. A founder noted that payment, on achieving these results, will be via an agreed small percentage of the learner’s subsequent earnings, or a specified amount of his or her time that can be auctioned by the teachers in reputation-based online telework markets. (continued)


February 8, 2016—An Uplift Academy spinoff has completed a pilot of personal learning contracts in Sacramento, California, one of the country’s most hard-struck communities in terms of unemployment and housing foreclosures.

The Uplift Academy Partnership has provided a smorgasbord of alternatives to 100 households with unemployed workers. After designing custom “personal learning networks” in response to each household’s reskilling and educational aspirations, it delivers on-demand learning, work-study projects, and “open badge” certifications to help members enter into new actual and virtual markets.

A popular track for households in the initial 18-month trial consisted of acquiring skills to lower living costs, through microfarming, alternative energy solutions, shared use of 3D printers, and wellness/health practices.  In return, participating households agreed to share a portion of earnings from success in finding employment or launching businesses in related fields, in budget savings from reduced food, energy or other household costs, and/or an agreed share of future home value gains through “co-ownership mortgages.” The agreement specifies that municipally owned properties—at mutually agreed upon locations—may be transferred in the future as a land grant endowment to the Uplift Academy Partnership. In this case, participating households will be released from any contingent repayment obligations, while the Academy will continue to provide its personalized learning support to make the community a more attractive place in which to live and work… (continued)


Growing numbers of universities and student groups, in response to the recently launched Openworld Game (, are entering into planning and development partnerships with grassroots allies in impoverished regions. Participants focus on designing “quickstart” opportunities for innovative and entrepreneurially-led eLearning, eHealthcare, and eGovernment ventures of value to local private and public sector allies. 

Class projects by student teams, inspired by an earlier $25 billion private free zone precedent in South Korea  (, compete to offer the most attractive projects. In turn, communities propose land-grant sites for phased development, on a reward-sharing basis, with university partners that they deem best able to bring opportunities to fruition. The joint ventures attract risk-taking investors, chosen by competitive open tender. Revenues from concession agreements with the chosen investors help to fund national and global distance learning and other projects of the partnering university. Residents of communities that convey the sites, in turn, receive lifelong free access for all residents to virtual learning resources from their US educational partners, and shares in the lease revenue earnings . . . . (continued)


Are news events like these inevitable? Probably not—things might not get quite so bad for traditional universities, and much work will need to be done to ensure that the positive initiatives grow into sustainable institutions. Competitions and multi-level reward systems for early participants can provide a basis from which successful pilots can scale and spread. Once these are in place, world-class learning alternatives will come within reach of all on the planet. So, do not despair.