How to Levitate in 8 Short Weeks

Just kidding.

But…does it sound familiar?

MOOCs and other learning platforms, including P2PU, brought online learning into the mainstream–which is fantastic, means that informal learning is gaining steam and garnering legitimacy. We love the fact that learning is happening outside institutional walls.

However, the sensationalist marketing around online courses paints an inaccurate (and perhaps detrimental) picture of learning. The messages we see usually put the value proposition front and center (i.e. what you’ll get), in promises that echo “get rich quick” schemes and gold rush scenarios.

Take a look around the landscape: $10,000 code bootcamps sell a secure future as a developer after a mere 8 weeks. However, their questionable placement rates hardly deliver on that promise. For-profit universities gauge students with costs 5x that of a community college. Even Khan Academy’s marketing whispers “success” into our inboxes with the promise that anyone can learn anything.

The “Value Proposition” of Learning

In ed-tech circles, specifically in the open learning crew, we talk a lot about the move to the learner’s context. The terms we use–a learner’s satisfaction, the relevance of the material to their lives, interest-driven projects and learner engagement–show the shift of power to the learner. For better or for worse, learners can now gauge the immediate return on their investment (the “ROI” of learning).

But the truth is that learning is longitudinal. You never really know what it is that you are going to learn at the outset, because you make the path as you go. Think back to the buddies you met in Biology 101, or the mentor you found during an internship, or how you learned to give presentations in public. None of these are core offerings of “How to Levitate in 8 Weeks”–and if we only expect short-term effectiveness, it’s us as learners who will be cheated out of social learning’s full benefits.

Of course, this is a privileged position. Students who are time-poor (parents, folks who work multiple jobs, folks whose first language isn’t English) need to see the value in their investment right away. But a few problems arise when we view learning as strictly “transactional”:

Collaboration is stifled.

In our pre-course survey for Writing for Change, a time-poor student expresses their frustration with needing to collaborate with students.

“Past teamwork & learning – in-person or online – have not been positive. for adult learners like myself, i want to get what i need and get out. also would like to know for sure (based on my standards) the qualifications of instructor and other students before i want to dialogue..related to time and motivation for learning. little time to wait for others or rely on others who may not add value.” (Writing for Change pre-course survey respondent, August 2014).

There’s little room for exploration.

One of the criticisms of open learning is it benefits people who have agency, voice, can make a narrative out of the messiness and feel like they deserve to be there. Contrast this with a student’s voice who wants the learning content packaged into discrete, solitary bits (i.e. Blackboard):

“I don’t NEED anything at all to motivate me. I am just saying that none of this would ever demotivate me. The only thing I prefer to work as I can rather than having set times. ONLY because I work a lot and have to squeeze this in until that changes.” (Writing for Change pre-course survey respondent, August 2014).

We know from the work of social psychologists that purchasing experiences (versus material goods) makes us happier, that our pleasure surrounding those experiences expands over time, and that experiential goods build our identities in ways material goods simply can’t. Education is an experiential good. I would not be surprised if longitudinal data on online learning upheld that thesis.

Rebooting the Conversation

We need to bring together a learner’s drive to further themselves, but also design for the longitudinal value of learning (in collaboration, exploration and curiosity). A few ways to merge the two:

Refine the marketing message.

I asked someone who runs a coding education startup what an honest marketing message for their product might be. He thought a beat, then shared: “This product will prepare you for a 2-3 year-long intense study of the discipline of engineering.” Which is true: one of the reasons code bootcampers struggle to find work is that engineering is a discipline. Expertise in a discipline takes time.

When I was kidding around with the folks from College Unbound earlier this week, they offered: “We can help you levitate in 8 weeks–but only a 1/4 inch off the ground, along with the help of 10 peers, an expert, and the research you find.”

Some organizations embrace a more long-term message: Roosevelt University’s recent campaign appeals to gumption, hard-work and an actualized self.


Balance the liberal arts approach with practical application.

We’ve been particularly inspired by the model at College Unbound where students receive a BA using the real-life experience from their jobs. They receive the practical degree they came for, but also learn the value of working in community. This model is very high-engagement, which perhaps makes it not “scalable” in the webscale sense. And as Chris Lehmann, founder of the Science Leadership Academy recently wrote: “Systems scale. Ideas scale. Concepts scale. But people don’t scale.”

Use the online/offline connection thoughtfully.

The future of educational technology will bolster and sustain in-person courses. Learners will use the online component to discover people and extend the face-to-face discussions, and likewise the face-to-face experience will dig deeper into the serendipity that happens online.

P2PU has experimented with designing meetup groups (with our Deeper Learning MOOC) and groups of teachers met up face-to-face for our Learning Creative Learning course. We’re also eager to work with the Chicago Public Library to connect face-to-face learners in libraries with online learning communities.

The future of learning does not lie in “disruptive” technologies, but in people exploring together. Educational experiences build who you are, and we as learners knit many pieces together along the way. If we expect only short-term wins, we’ll be disappointed in what we get.

Thanks to Alex Hillman, Dave Cormier, Jon Gottfried, Rob Spectre + P2PU crew for their ideas and feedback.

Image credit: Christian Bucad


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