If you see members of EDUpreneurship — an education reform project created by the University’s entrepreneurial student organization MPowered — wearing shirts saying “I think you look like Salman Khan,” don’t flatter yourself into thinking that you look like the Bollywood actor with the same name.

This is a reference to Khan Academy, an online educational reform start-up that provides free educational videos and interactive modules for students. Initiatives such as this have become increasingly popular in the current educational reform movement that moves toward self-innovated education. As the value of the traditional education system is being called into question.

On Friday, about 50 people — including EDUpreneurship members sporting the “Salman Khan” shirts — gathered in the School of Education to hear Dale Stephens, one of the first Thiel Fellows and founder of the educational reform program UnCollege. He talked about the growing need of a self-directed education system and how going to college is not the only key to success. His presentation was part of the EDUpreneurship three-day boot camp that took place over the weekend and during Stephens’ own book tour for his new book Hacking Your Education.

Stephens began his presentation by discussing the roots of his experience in alternative education; he dropped out of the fifth grade at age 12 and has been designing his education ever since. But, he doesn’t use the term homeschooling when referring to his education outside the classroom; he uses the term “unschooling,” a self-directed form of education originating in the 1970s.

Stephens and his parents initially thought of unschooling as an educational experiment that would last for a year or just through middle school. After getting more involved in their local unschooling movement, however, they found the education reform to be the perfect venue to pursue Stephens’ academic interests and expectations.

“Meeting all of these homeschoolers and ‘unschoolers’ who were homeschooling for academic reasons provided a framework and a vocabulary for an educational mindset and philosophy that my parents and I were trying to wrap our heads around,” Stephens said.

Stephen claimed unschooling is a superior way to learn in comparison to public schooling. Venturing beyond the domain of a conventional K-12 education, he was able to work on political campaigns, help build a library in his hometown and even work for a start-up company in San Francisco.

“For the first time I was able to do things that mattered,” he said. “I was able to have an impact on what I was doing. I was able to choose how, where, when and why I was going to learn.”

Standardized test statistics show that homeschooled students learn more than public-school students. A 2008 study conducted by the Home School Legal Defense Association found that homeschooled students scored 72 points higher on the SAT and 1.8 points higher on the ACT than the national average. It is also shown that financial predispositions do not significantly affect the success of homeschooling; families who spent less than $600 on educational materials and resources scored in the 86th percentile while families who spent more than $600 scored in the 89th percentile of standardized tests.

After being unschooled until the end of high school, Stephens enrolled in Hendrix College in Arkansas, which he attended for six months before dropping out. He said he felt disappointed in himself on the first day of classes.

“I realized that I bought into local maxima, that I didn’t want to be in a place where everyone thought that they were the best,” Stephens said. “I wanted to be in a place where I was constantly being challenged, where I was continuing to learn and improve myself.”

Stephens said he came to the conclusion that the problem has to do with the methods of education, not the schools themselves, and that the education that schools are providing is not practical and worth what it costs.

“It’s time to take responsibility for how we learn, for what we’re learning and for where it’s going to go,” he said. “We’re heading towards a world where there are opportunities to learn that are more meaningful and are less expensive than going to a school or college.”

Stephens said people are realizing that a self-directed education is the future, and this change is becoming increasingly relevant as the value of college education diminishes.

“These things are happening right now,” Stephens said. “Colleges and schools and universities everywhere are realizing if they don’t change their business models, if they don’t change the value of education that they’re offering students, cheaper and more meaningful alternatives are going to replace them.”

Stephens said while writing his book he found an amazing education isn’t solely gained through a pricey college degree.

“(For my book I interviewed) everyone from people who grew up in the slum of Mumbai and went on to become captains of oil companies to people who went to Oxford,” he said. “There seems to be absolutely no correlation whether or not people came from a privileged background and whether or not they succeeded outside of school.”

The University is already taking an initiative to help students design their own educational path. Projects such as
Flipped Semester, where students can earn nine academic credits for pursuing self-directed entrepreneurial projects, are among these efforts.

Business senior Ryan Strauss, a member of the University’s Flipped Semester commission who attended the event, said access to educational resources through technology is an integral part of this revolutionary education reform. In effect, universities are becoming outdated.

“I think before the Internet became popular, Universities were hubs of knowledge, so people had to come to a traditional institution in order to obtain the best knowledge from the best professors and from the best books,” Strauss said. “But, now we are seeing a shift where knowledge is really accessible. There are low barriers to entry through startups such as Coursera and Khan Academy … Therefore, universities are shifting from becoming centers of knowledge to facilitators of engaged learning and entrepreneurial education.”

Strauss also said there’s a movement among young students to be able to design their own education, and the credit system has to be changed as a result.

“Universities are going to inevitably have to shift the way they give out credits,” he said. “Students will be more able to actively determine how they learn and engage in their passions through a self-directed education.”

Engineering sophomore Natasja Nielsen, a member of MPowered, said interactive teaching and more avenues for students to pursue their interests is lacking in the current education system.

“I think we definitely have to have more dynamic teaching, showing students how they can find the things they enjoy and take that further,” Nielsen said.

LSA freshman Keegan Beljanski said the rising cost of tuition also needs to be addressed in any future educational reforms.

LSA senior Sara Miller said education inequality is also an important issue that needs to be seriously looked at.

“I think every kid deserves to have an education that’s suitable to their needs and that is adequate,” Miller said. “I think there is a lack of access to education, to a quality education in this country, and people need to be working towards more equality and education that’s tailored more towards the needs of a wide variety of learning abilities.”

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