SuperCourses: Education Truly Reinvented

Imagine your child getting immersive education taught by the world's best.

Posted Jun 29, 2016

Namco, CC
Source: Namco, CC

This is an improved version of the concept I wrote about regarding K-12 in TIME, re higher ed also in TIME, re high school in the Washington Post, and re job retraining in The Atlantic.

Think back to when you were in high school. No, not recess, not your friends, not sports--the academics. Now, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being terribly boring to 10 being much better than playing around, how would you rate your academic experience in high school?

Now imagine that you heard that you, your child, all children, whether rich or poor, living in Alabama or Zululand, could have an education that would not only score a 10 but improve reading, writing, thinking, mathematical reasoning, citizenship, connoisseurship and so on dramatically more than does standard education?

Of course, that sounds like hype but by the time you finish this article, I hope you'll come to believe it's possible and is a goal we should fight for.


Think back to that high school course that's considered a gateway to success and that  many students struggle with: Algebra 1. Think back to how algebra was taught to you. For too many students, the memory is of boring or poorly understood lectures on quadratic equations and calculating the area under the curve of a parabola. Instruction never got more immersive than "A train left Cleveland for Chicago at 4 PM at 20 miles an hour and another train left Chicago for Cleveland at 3 PM at 30 miles an hour. At what time will they meet?" If you're like many students, not only couldn't you figure it out, you couldn't care when they met. Worse, whether you were bold enough to ask the teacher or not, weren't there times you at least thought, "Why do I need to learn this?"

Now imagine this Supercourse version of Algebra 1. On your tablet, laptop or even phone, you see an image of yourself tied to the front of a train. The video starts and In the distance you see another train approaching. You need to figure out whether you have enough time to try to untie yourself. Isn't that more motivating than the standard abstract question? Now imagine that instead of a random teacher, you got, online, a scintillating one who entertainingly and tantalizingly offered you clues to how to figure out how much time you have. Now picture the algebra course filled with such activities. Picture also that the course is gameified, so your performance on each activity earns points and contributes to your getting ever higher-level badges. Of course, your performance, automatically recorded, provides--without taking days off for standardized testing--ongoing assessment, not only to track your achievement level but to give the teacher feedback so s/he can give you better support, either live or by adjusting the online course's approach, for example, faster or slower pace, more verbal or more visual.

You might ask, "But that's an online teacher. What about the human touch?" My response is to ask you, "Wouldn't you rather have a world-class teacher online than the random teacher live?" And the course wouldn't be without human beings. A live teacher could be on-site to answer questions and otherwise provide support. And many of the simulations and other activities would be done in student teams.

Supercourses would bring other advantages. For example, to serve America's ever more diverse student population. a course could be translated into many languages. While it is important for all students to learn English, newcomers from non-English-speaking countries probably should be taught the difficult algebra in their native tongue.

Would the SuperCourse approach also work for other high school academic subjects?

Let's take English. Imagine you're in a video and Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler says to you, "Frankly dear, I don't give a damn." Then your online teacher asks you, "What would you say back to him?" Imagine an English course filled with literature's great passages in which you are the protagonist at key moments. Wouldn't you learn more about literature, persuasion, and life's universals, as well as have a good time in such a class rather than if a stuffy teacher was lecturing at you all year long?

Now let's consider science. Instead of having to memorize the chemicals in the Krebs cycle, balance acid/base equations, and calculate the force needed to move a 300-pound weight four inches on a surface with a friction coefficient of 1.2, you're, for example, in a competition with your classmates. On your screen, you're experimenting with different rocket designs and fuels--lots of science and math involved--to see which group can create the rocket that flies furthest. And there's no risk of blowing anything or anyone up.

Or in a history course, instead of the usual fact-larded march through the ages, imagine your face is on that screen during history's greatest decision points. For example, you're President Truman just having been told the pros and cons of dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. What would you do? And after you've opined, giving your best reasoning, your dazzling instructor would lay out pros and cons and ask you to decide again.

That's why I believe SuperCourses promise an education likely to yield far better learning and greater pleasure than the "innovations" schools implement such as  smaller class size, cleaning graffiti from school walls, high expectations, and longer school day.

Why don't we already have SuperCourses?

Part of it is our fault. We've been too conservative. We and our ancestors were taught by a sage on the stage plus worksheets and we feel we turned out all right so we figure that we have bigger battles to fight than to try to reinvent the education system. But if there's a way to help our children to learn more while having a more pleasant experience for all those years in school, shouldn't that be high-priority? That would seem to be especially true since, despite the U.S. spending #1 per capita in the world on education, America flounders near the bottom of the OECD's 34 countries.

The teachers union. Teachers pay dues to the union to protect their jobs. So unions fight innovations such as SuperCourses in case, at some point, someone will argue, "Who needs the live teacher any more?"  But to allay the union bosses' fear, should we deprive our children of an education far more beneficial and pleasurable than what we had and especially than what many at-risk kids have, not just in the U.S. but in developing nations?

It will take a lot of work to create. Of course, developing a high school curriculum of SuperCourses will take significant effort. That's something I believe the federal government should take on. Fund it once and the cost gets amortized across millions of students. And there's no need to fund it all at once. Indeed it's prudent to first develop just one course, for example, that bugaboo Algebra course, and pilot-test it against the conventionally taught algebra course as delivered by a random sample of live teachers. Only if the SuperCourse is found superior in learning and student satisfaction, would it make sense to develop SuperCourses in additional subjects.

The takeaway

Depending on your motivation or your position, there's a little or a lot you can do to make SuperCourses a reality. For example, might you send this article to your child's principal to see if s/he might tout it to higher-ups? Might you mention it during the public-comment section of a school board meeting? Might you send a copy of this article to your school district superintendent, state superintendent. or even tweet it to Joseph South, the Education Technology Director for the U.S. Department of Education?

I believe that SuperCourses have the potential to do more to enhance the learning and well-being of all students than any education reform to date. Or at least, wouldn't it be nice if kids could learn algebra in more interesting ways than "A train left Cleveland at 4:00...."?

Here is the link to a video of me reading this article aloud.