Admission Rate to Prestigious Colleges Hits All-Time Low

“Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

That’s from this New York Times piece, which cites that Stanford accepted an ultra-low 5% of candidates this year.

Part of the reason for such low admission rates? It’s way too easy to apply to multiple colleges with the common application, compared to the way it was less than a decade ago:

At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, abetted by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal, and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a mouse click. Seven years ago, 315 colleges and universities accepted the most widely used form, the Common Application; this year, 517 did.

How Creativity is Becoming an Academic Discipline

A fascinating New York Times piece on how some schools are leveraging the obscure field of creativity into teaching it in academia:

Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.

“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.

“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”

Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

Very good point in this last paragraph:

The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”

Also see the related slide show here; this one is my favorite:

vitamin_fork_and_spoon

How a Dog Named Pete Got an MBA Degree

This is an interesting investigation by the BBC about how easy it is to fake credentials and get an MBA degree from The American University of London. In exchange for a fee, of course.

The American University of London (AUOL) awarded a fictitious person created by the programme a Master’s in Business in exchange for a £4,500 fee.

AUOL has insisted it is “not a bogus university” and defended the robustness of the qualifications it offers.

Newsnight has found hundreds of senior executives listing AUOL qualifications.

The programme contacted some of them, but they all insisted that they had had to study for their degrees.

AUOL styles itself as a pioneer of distance learning, offering degrees and post-graduate qualifications in business, IT, law, education and liberal arts, humanities, and English to more than 100,000 students worldwide.

Its website claims that that all of their courses “have been designed to the most exacting standards, in accordance with the most stringent criteria, in order to provide outstanding education at an affordable price”.

However, Newsnight found that getting the university to provide a qualification without any study at all was easy.

The programme drew up a one-page fake CV for a management consultant Peter Smith, known as Pete, living in South London, which included 15 years of made-up work experience and a fictitious undergraduate degree from a UK university.

The real Pete was actually a dog living in Battersea Dogs’ Home.

Read the rest here.

Is Homework in American Schools Getting Harder and Longer?

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Karl Greenfield has a lengthy piece titled “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” on attempting to do his 13-year-old daughter’s homework for one week. Comparing to his past, he is overwhelmed by how much homework is assigned to her daughter on a nightly basis.

I don’t remember how much homework was assigned to me in eighth grade. I do know that I didn’t do very much of it and that what little I did, I did badly. My study habits were atrocious. After school I often went to friends’ houses, where I sometimes smoked marijuana, and then I returned home for dinner; after lying to my parents about not having homework that night, I might have caught an hour or two of television. In Southern California in the late ’70s, it was totally plausible that an eighth grader would have no homework at all.

If my daughter came home and said she had no homework, I would know she was lying. It is inconceivable that her teachers wouldn’t assign any.

What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.

Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.

Is it too much?

Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

This exchange caught my attention (I hadn’t heard of this cross-disciplinary work being popular in schools):

One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers. The problem was not the complexity of the work, it was the amount of calculating required. The measurements included numbers like 78 13/64, and all this multiplying and dividing was to be done without a calculator. Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.

What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.

She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.

But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.

The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.

Worth the read, especially if you’re a parent with kids in K-12.

Battushig Myanganbayar: From Mongolia to M.I.T.

This is a very cool story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old teenager from Ulan Bator, Mongolia who caught the attention of M.IT. officials by participating and doing exceptionally well in an online course (a MOOC) in Circuits & Electronics. He has now enrolled in M.I.T. as a freshman as a result of his accomplishment.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

How does a student from a country in which a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe, ace an M.I.T. course even though nothing like this is typically taught in Mongolian schools? The answer has to do with Battushig’s extraordinary abilities, of course, but also with the ambitions of his high-school principal. Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of the Sant School, was the first Mongolian to graduate from M.I.T., in 2009, and he has tried since then to bring science and technology labs to his students. “My vision,” he told me, “is to have more skilled engineers to develop Mongolia. To do that, everything has to start from the beginning.” In the past decade, Mongolia, which had limited landlines, invested heavily in its information technology infrastructure and now has an extensive 3G network. Most homes in Ulan Bator have Internet connections, and almost everyone, including nomads, has at least one cellphone. Even on the steppe, with only sheep in sight, you can get a signal.

On comparing these Mongolian students to the M.I.T. students taking this same course:

Battushig was one of 20 students, ranging in age from 13 to 17, to enroll in the class. About half dropped out. The course is difficult in any setting — M.I.T. sophomores often pull all-nighters — and the Mongolian students were taking it in a second language. Battushig, however, thrived. “I can’t compare it to a regular class,” he said. “I had never done that kind of thing before. It was really a watershed moment for me.” To help his classmates, he made videos in Mongolian that offered pointers and explanations of difficult concepts and posted them on YouTube. Kim, who had taught similar classes at M.I.T., told me, “If Battushig, at the age of 15, were a student at M.I.T., he would be one of the top students — if not the top.

I don’t think this kind of exposure for anyone would have been possible before the advent of the MOOCs. Or at the very least, incredibly difficult. Quite an impressive accomplishment for Battushig. The story highlights that the MOOCs democratize education, but they also can serve as a way for universities to attract top talent from all over the globe.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Free Online

This is an incredibly generous endeavor by Caltech: they have published The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTML format, available for free:

Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website are pleased to present this online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Now, anyone with internet access and a web browser can enjoy reading a high-quality up-to-date copy of Feynman’s legendary lectures. This edition has been designed for ease of reading on devices of any size or shape; text, figures and equations can all be zoomed without degradation.

Amazing.

Get your fix of Volume I.

###

Notes:

1) If you’re wondering, the hardcover set of the lectures goes for around $180 on Amazon.

2) Read why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

The South Korean Teacher Who Makes $4 Million Per Year

The Wall Street Journal profiles Kim Ki-hoon, who earns $4 million a year in South Korea as a rock-star teacher. He has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country’s private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in very high demand:

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

A bit more on how Mr. Kim makes his income:

The bulk of Mr. Kim’s earnings come from the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year. (Most are high-school students looking to boost their scores on South Korea’s version of the SAT.) He is a brand name, with all the overhead that such prominence in the market entails. He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

To call this mere tutoring is to understate its scale and sophistication. Megastudy, the online hagwon that Mr. Kim works for, is listed on the South Korean stock exchange. (A Megastudy official confirmed Mr. Kim’s annual earnings.) Nearly three of every four South Korean kids participate in the private market. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on these services. That is more than the $15 billion spent by Americans on videogames that year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

Welcome to the new economy.

Georgia Tech Announces an Online Masters Degree in Computer Science

Major news from my alma mater, Georgia Tech, today: the university is offering an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) for less than $7,000. The collaboration is among Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T.

From the official announcement:

All OMS CS course content will be delivered via the massive open online course (MOOC) format, with enhanced support services for students enrolled in the degree program. Those students also will pay a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus master’s programs; total tuition for the program is initially expected to be below $7,000. A pilot program, partly supported by a generous gift from AT&T, will begin in the next academic year. Initial enrollment will be limited to a few hundred students recruited from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. Enrollment is expected to expand gradually over the next three years.

Here is Sebastian Thrun, c0-founder of Udacity, on how this degree will revolutionize education:

I co-founded Udacity to bring the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide. With Georgia Tech, we have a partner whose computer science program is among the best in the world! And equally importantly, with AT&T, we partner with a Fortune-500 company which is relentlessly innovating in the space of digital access to information. This triumvirate of industry and academia is now teaming up to use 21st Century MOOC technology to level the playing field in computer science education. And while the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee — after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services — the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don’t care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.

Thrun is enthusiastic about this opportunity and likes this launch to the day he proposed to his wife.

As for why CS is the first to be the first degree of its kind as a MOOC? Per the FAQs:

Computer science is defined by the ability to train and test students within a rubric of discrete, quantifiable problems and solutions. This makes computer science much more amenable to the massive-online format.

Only a matter of time until physics, math, and other STEM fields get added. Welcome to the future!

Is The Avenues School the Best Education Money Can Buy?

A fun profile in New York Times Magazine of Avenues: The World School in Chelsea, a for-profit (to the tune of $43,000/year) school in New York City. What happens when each set of parents is entitled to an opinion on how the school should be run? Chaos:

In September, Avenues opened with 740 students, from pre-K to ninth grade. And with those students came 740 sets of parents, many of them determined to design the perfect 21st-century school in their own high-earning, creative-class image. They were entrepreneurs and tech millionaires, talent agents and fashion designers, Katie Holmes, hedge-fund managers and artists who refuse to live above 23rd Street. And they wanted to be heard. The school subsequently formed a parents’ association, but it had no rules. So there was a debate about who got to go to the meetings and who got to vote. Bylaws had to be created, which, in Avenues’ case, meant collecting the rules and regulations of 30 other private schools so as to determine the best way to even make bylaws. “There was nothing in place,” says Jacquie Hemmerdinger, head of the standards and values committee on the Avenues Parents Association, “and they empowered 700 parents.”

A committee was created to manage events, like galas and book fairs and bake sales, even though, as a for-profit school, Avenues couldn’t hold any events that raised money. (Did Avenues even want book fairs, some wondered? That was debated, too.) A task force was formed to investigate the safety of the neighborhood after at least one mother fretted that her child had seen the upper outlines of a homeless man’s backside en route to a playground. The complaint became known as the butt-crack e-mail. Other debates waged over the classrooms (were there enough books?); pickup (it was mayhem); identification cards (the photos were too high-resolution); and the school uniforms (was anyone enforcing the policy?). “I think we underestimated the degree of their energy and creativity,” says Gardner P. Dunnan, the former Dalton headmaster and Avenues’ academic dean and head of the Upper School. “They would take over if they could. They are New York parents.”

And then there was the food committee. After the PowerPoint presentation concluded in the black-box theater, the questions started flying: Why so much bread? What was the policy on genetically modified organisms? Why no sushi?

My question: what does it mean for the identification cards to be too high resolution? New Yorkers!

Read the entire story here.

Cheating on a Game Theory Test: One Professor’s Experience

Peter Nonacs is a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA. He studies the evolution of social behavior across species. In this blog post, he recounts how one of the tests he gave in his Game Theory class he allowed the students to cheat (collaborate with one another):

So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade. Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?

A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard—far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn’t take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn’t possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

I like the conclusion:

The best tests will not only find out what students know but also stimulate thinking in novel ways. This is much more than regurgitating memorized facts. The test itself becomes a learning experience—where the very act of taking it leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.