A chat with Jim Waldo

Jim Waldo, Chief Technology Officer at Harvard University, gave a talk at a private corporate event I attended earlier this week. My company builds some of the boxes that help make the internet work. Although there’s a lot going on from a technical perspective, it’s not very glamorous to the general public. Jim, I suspect, was brought in in part to tell us why we did what we do.

Waldo’s talk focused on new online education ventures, including Harvard and MIT’s edX and Stanford’s Coursera and Udacity. At first he seemed to be one of many uncritical voices in the movement. Responding to criticism that only twenty thousand finished Stanford’s AI course out of the 150 thousand that enrolled, he said “then half the people who have finished an AI course finished that one.” He also endorsed the flipped classroom, where students watch lectures as online videos and then do homework in class. (He poked fun at the oxymoron.) Afterwards I asked him a question along the lines of “the distribution methods have changed, but the content itself has not,” saying that “worksheets and lectures” are the same as “lectures and worksheets”. He responded by saying that the Khan Academy differed from that approach.

But when I caught up with Waldo during the lunch break, he backpedaled on that point. What differentiated Khan from traditional lectures was that Khan was broken up in to 10-minute chunks, interspersed with questions. He admitted that it wasn’t a huge distinction. When he asked me what I would do differently, I told him that I didn’t have the educator’s background to do something completely different, but I did have the same engineer’s background that Sal Khan has (ostensibly). Rather than run with an idea that seems to work and make thousands of videos, I told Jim, I would have picked out a particular course (say, high school physics) and done and redone it four or five times.

“You’ve picked up on the difference between Coursera and edX,” said Jim. I noticed some east coast/west coast rivalry. Places like the Khan Academy, he explained, tend to think they have The Answer. By contrast, what Harvard was doing was an experiment. “Anyone who says they have the answer in this field is lying. Possibly to themselves,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s exciting.”

To his credit, Waldo made mention of this in his talk as well. He explained how no online school can beat the residential experience, but they can come a lot closer than they currently do. Rather than take an educator’s reasoned approach, he said that he’s open to trying anything, mining big data, and figuring out what techniques work using  statistics. When I pressed him about the validity of conventional assessment, he replied that “the first set of statistics will tell us what statistics we should have been collecting.” He was even open to the possibility that it would all fall through in five years, but didn’t think that would happen.

Jim’s intellectual humility was refreshing. He didn’t give in to hype in the ways other online learning tools have, particularly the Khan Academy. For the good of humanity, I hope that he can find a secret sauce (or secret sauces) buried in the data he’ll collect over the coming years. I think he stands a better chance than the Khan Academy of bringing quality education, which creates deep understanding rather than blind memorization, to all.

Whether I think he’ll actually pull it off is a topic for another post. In the mean time, we agreed that even if we don’t have the right kind of content to put online yet, building the internet is a worthwhile goal. Maybe one day we’ll be able to use it for something more noble than LOLcats.

(Note: None of Waldo’s quotes should be taken as exactly verbatim, but they are close. Many were not recorded, except by me tweeting them, and I wrote this post a few days after it happened. I have tried to present his view accurately and fairly. Just trying to be careful here.)

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