School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

The Udacity of Hope

Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who taught an online class in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that went viral, announced today he is leaving his tenured professorship at the university to start his own online university, Udacity, where courses will be taught for free to anyone in the world.

In kicking off his new virtual college, Thrun wasted no time with small ideas. His first course offering on building a search engine is described this way: “Learn programming in seven weeks. We’ll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo!” Given Thrun’s Google pedigree, this is a promise he should be able to handle.

As previously explored in this space, Thrun and his colleague, Peter Norvig, set out to experiment with online learning by offering their top-rated Stanford course on AI to anyone for free. Their aim was to give the rest of the world access to the same instructional quality and content as those taking the traditional brick-and-mortar Stanford course. To remain in the course, online participants had to successfully complete the rigorous weekly homework assignments.

Felix Salmon wrote about this major announcement in a blog post Udacity and the Future of Online Universities from the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich. At the conference, Thrun revealed some intriguing facts about his game-changing online learning course:

  • there were more students from Lithuania alone in the course than students at the physical Stanford class altogether.
  • the physical class at Stanford started with 200 students but shrunk to 30 students because, according to Salmon, “the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”
  • Of all students who took the course, only 248 scored perfect (meaning never missed a homework or exam question). All of them took the course online.
  • And according to a DLD press release, one student in Afghanistan described “risking his life” just to reach a hotspot so he could finish his assignment.

It’s unclear why Thrun chose to sever his relationship with Stanford. It’s a risk for Thrun – will as many people sign up for an online case without the world-class Stanford name attached? Was the competition between the online and brick-and-mortar Stanford students a necessary ingredient to the success of the initial AI course?

His stated goal is certainly a worthy one.

Maybe we should rethink education. If we can make education free and accessible for the world, we can achieve things we never thought possible.

According to Salmon, Thrun’s transition to online teaching was inspired by the Khan Academy model. The Khan model turns the traditional system on its head through its focus on mastery over grades. Khan Academy students can access lectures and materials as much as they need in order to master content. Thrun admitted that in his years as a traditional professor, the goal in part was to weed out students with hard coursework, mostly designed to make the professor look smart. But, with Udacity, Thrun intends to reach and teach as many students as possible.

Beth T. Sigall

January 23, 2012


Help Wanted

It is common for employers to require that prospective employees have a high school diploma to apply for certain jobs. But what if a high school diploma requirement was disqualifying prospective employees with disabilities who did not earn a high school diploma, but could otherwise perform the job? And would such a requirement violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the answer is “yes.” In an “informal discussion letter” that could have far-reaching and profound implications for persons with disabilities seeking employment, the EEOC held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) employers cannot use a high school diploma requirement to weed out qualified applicants with disabilities. The employer must instead consider whether the essential functions of the job could be performed regardless of diploma status. If yes, then the employer must make “reasonable accommodations” for the person to perform the job (although the prospective job applicant need not be given preferred status for the job over a non-disabled applicant). Here’s how the EEOC articulated the standard:

“If an employer adopts a high school diploma requirement for a job, and that requirement ‘screens out’ an individual who is unable to graduate because of a learning disability that meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” the employer may not apply the standard unless it can demonstrate that the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity. The employer will not be able to make this showing, for example, if the functions in question can easily be performed by someone who does not have a diploma.”

In EEOC: High school diploma requirement might violate Americans with Disabilties Act, Dave Boyer of The Washington Times describes how employment attorneys are advising their clients in the wake of the EEOC’s letter. Attorney Mary Theresa Metzler recommends that employers “review their job descriptions to determine if a high school degree is truly necessary, or would aid the employee in performing the essential functions of the particular job.” Metzler provides perspective on the EEOC’s thinking in the same article:

The EEOC may be inclined to test its view on the high school diploma requirement and its impact on the disabled in a court case. While such a requirement is routinely included by many employers, a deeper analysis may demonstrate that a lesser educational requirement might suffice.

My Take – While some may view the EEOC’s recommendations as sending the wrong message at a time when our national and state education policies seek to increase high school graduation rates, as previously noted in this space, the sad fact remains that the employment rate for persons with disabilities remains unacceptably low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. By insisting that employers examine their threshold job applicant requirements more closely, the EEOC is doing its part to help bring more persons with disabilities into the workplace. Real jobs for real pay for people with disabilities can and should be more than a lofty aspiration. If a person with a disability did not earn a high school diploma because of their disability, but is otherwise qualified to perform a job, employers should do their part to help bring that person into the workforce.

Beth T. Sigall

January 8, 2012

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