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Jailbreaking Education With David Blake

One of my pet passions is education. This stems from having experienced a range of different education mediums, coupled with an intense desire to provide my own children with the best education possible.

It's a topic that should be on everyone's radar simply because education should NEVER be something one acquires for a brief period of time in order to obtain employment. That concept of education is anathema to me, and should be for any intellectually interested human being. It is the difference between Education vs Schooling.

Aside from education simply being an intellectual pursuit, there will (and are) new models being built which I suspect will make entrepreneurs and investors very, very rich, in addition to making our young people a whole lot smarter!Investing in Education will likely be a hot topic in the future.

With that in mind I spoke recently with David Blake, the founder and CEO of Degreed.com about his thoughts on this very topic. I think you'll find it enlightening.


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Chris: David, tell us a bit about yourself and how you conceived of, and founded, Degreed.com.

David: I am an education entrepreneur. Prior to founding Degreed, I helped launch New Charter University, the most affordable private university in the world. Previously, I was a founding member of Zinch, a service that has helped over 5 million students be recruited by over 900 universities, including Stanford, MIT, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton. I was chosen as a Stanford d.School EdTech Entrepreneur.

Universities have a monopoly on credentials, but not on learning. Degreed started with the belief that learning is already free - MIT open courseware has been around for a decade, yet we still pay thousands to go to college. Why? Among the reasons we still pay to go to college is to gain the credential, the degree, which unlocks the majority of employment. This problem is at the heart of what we hope to address with Degreed.

Chris: So what is the mission, and exactly what are you trying to accomplish with degreed.com?

David: We spend four years and thousands of dollars on our education. Then, for most of us, it turns into a single bullet point on our resume. Further, the day we graduate we don't stop learning, but our learning stops mattering.

We want to help people unlock their dreams through validated, lifelong education.

Chris: Why do you think the traditional establishment of education, whether it be primary, secondary or tertiary is so hopelessly inadequate in preparing one for the challenges faced once we leave the cocoon of the educational establishment.

David: I do believe that we need better outcomes in education. I am also optimistic that technology will enable new models that will empower the agents and players of today's educational establishment to help drive the solutions we need.

For example, I think higher education is structurally unsound, e.g. 50% graduation rate after 6 years, 50% un- and mal-employment rate for grads, and ~$25,000 in debt per grad, but the best courses taught anywhere in the world are still taught from American universities within the ivied walls of the "establishment." I believe technology will establish more efficient models of learning, e.g. "Jailbreaking the Degree" in higher ed or "Flipping the Classroom" in K-12. Both of these technology-enabled models empower the traditional players, e.g. colleges and teachers, respectively, to take new roles and be part of the solution.

Chris: A typical argument that I get from people when debating the merits of a college degree is that people see no alternatives. I think this is more a factor of finding it too difficult to think of what doesn't exist outside of the mainstream; after all, stretching your brain doesn't come easy, especially if you're not used to it.

This lack of lateral thinking is what scares me the most about traditional education. It worked in the industrial age when all that was required was a production line of automatons who could follow procedures. Of course I'm being rather flippant, but certainly over the last 20 or 30 years the employment and business model has changed substantially, while the education sector has remained stuck in the dark ages. Would you agree with that assessment?

David: I do agree that our education system is a reflection of the industrial era in which it was developed. I think society today demands a very different set of traits and skills for success.

For example, our world today demands more multi-disciplined thinking, ability to iterate and fail, and creativity. There is the adage "measure what matters" and we have an opportunity to drive change down through the system by evaluating the educational system along new, more meaningful mechanics.

Chris: My business partner and I have recently indoctrinated his nephew who is fresh out of high school. We sent him on a short intensive hands-on training course in the agriculture space and then flew him out to Ulaanbaatar to help us with a startup business we're doing.

I'm willing to bet that within a 1 year time frame this young man will learn more of what is needed about the particular field and business than a 4-year college degree would allow him, and for a fraction of the cost. What's more, we believe his input has the very real potential to assist in creating a multi-million dollar business.

David: A great education requires that we learn foundational principles, upon which we can build on-demand later as required. For example, if I want to learn how to build a Monte Carlo simulation, I must have in place a foundational understanding of statistics and computational software, like Excel. If I have that foundation, I can learn the new model on-demand. If I don't have that foundation, I am out of luck.

So, we all need time, support, and structure in our lives to provide us period to gain those meaningful foundations. Past that, the on-demand learning is becoming increasingly easy, accessible, and high quality.

My feeling is that college is a good way to gain the foundational knowledge for many things. But so is a year of hands-on-training in Ulaanbaatar, as is Peter Thiel's 20 Under 20 Fellowship.

Right now, college is the only method of teaching these foundations that has both social-acceptance and scalability. Before the world is to change, we need to bring greater social acceptance and scalability to alternative models, e.g. apprenticeships.

Chris: What is your sense of the market forces which are bringing alternative education platforms to the market place?

David: Employers don't care if you have a diploma. Mark Cuban recently wrote, "As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper."

But figuring out who can do the job is hard to do and more relevant information has been scarce. So, employers ask for a degree. As soon as we can surface more relevant information, I believe that employers will be quick to use it.

The irrelevancy of a diploma was agreeable enough to all involved when it was inexpensive. The market forces that are truly forcing our evolution are the rising cost of education (tuition), our inability to finance it (student debt) and the diminishing return on the degree (wages). Now, we cannot afford the inefficiencies that we were previously able to overlook-and even enjoy (think football and partying).

Chris: Great points David!

As little as 20 years ago there were few alternatives to traditional education. Today we have Khan Academy, uncollege.org, udacity.com and many more that are quickly providing alternatives. I believe this is due in large part to technology enabling access, as well as the cost of R&D in this space falling precipitously, which is allowing startups like yourself to compete. How do you see this now and in the near future?

David: There is definitely a sense that education is having a watershed moment. The costs of the traditional model are finally at structurally untenable levels while the entry costs of these alternatives are feasible. But technology has caught up in other important ways in addition to just costs… just 10 years ago there wasn't the distribution of the web to go directly to consumers in a scalable way.

I believe the dominoes will start falling at an ever increasing rate. As these pioneers in education technology begin to find success, they will enable more and more new services and products to enter the market. The whole ecosystem is gaining strength and believe we are at the front of a decade of innovation that will change education for the next century.

Chris: Throughout human history scale of economies has benefited mankind. From the production factories of the industrial age to the revolution of the micro chip.

At the same time education up until now has remained a setup whereby it has not been scalable. One could argue that TV allowed for scalability of education however the interactive dynamic never existed until the speed of the microprocessor delivered us today's mediums which allow us to do just that.

This leads us into the economics of education, which in the traditional setup saddles students with enormous debts (discussed previously). This seems insane to me. In every other sector that enjoys scalability the costs have plummeted. What do you think the university of the future will look like when you and I are sitting on the porch sipping scotch?

David: Lemonade for me. I think these other industries do serve as models of what education will come to look like. Like the news industry, content will become commoditized and democratized. Like music which shifted from albums to the digital single, education will become more modular. In this future the universities are more like the role that record labels serve to musical artists.

I think in the future learning will become a seamless part of our lives. We won't "go to college" the way we do now… for years at a time with (on campus or online). It is something we engage with on and off, for different reasons and lengths, for the entirety of our lives. I believe in this future, Harvard is neither a place I am admitted to or given a degree from. It is simply a place that has a great lecture on "Leadership in Civil Disobedience" or that is hosting my favorite teacher for a class, and is selling the tickets, price adjusted for demand, similar to seeing a concert today.

Chris: Thanks David and good luck with Degreed.com, we think you're definitely in the right place at the right time!

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People like David are the inspiration that Mark and I live for.

Each one of us has a choice to make, we can either sit about moaning about what does or doesn't exist, or we can get some fire in the belly and start changing the world… even if only in a small way.

Our heart-felt thanks goes out to every person that is using their talents and skills to make a better world for all of us.

- Chris

"It's actually worse than a bad mortgage… You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future." - Peter Thiel