Keep your eyes open for the September issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a litany of bizarre and outdated freshman hazing rituals, a brief history of culinary labor abuses in the neighborhood, and a half-optimistic view on the campus music scene. In the Conversation, the magazine locates a cool person, and sits down to talk to them for the benefit of all—simple as that. This month contributor Matthew Schantz caught up with alternative education specialist Dale J. Stephens.
After graduating 5th grade, Dale Stephens decided it was time to take his education into his own hands. Using the “unschooling” method, Dale created his own curriculum and taught himself using textbooks and free online resources. Dale, now 19 years old, aims to apply those same self-directed methods to higher education. Winner of one of the prestigious Peter Thiel scholarships, Dale is the founder of “Uncollege,” a movement that aims to challenge the idea that college is the only path to success. He found a moment to sit down with Blue & White contributor Matthew Schantz to discuss “Uncollege,” the Internet, and the future of higher education.
The Blue & White: When did you launch Uncollege?
Dale J. Stephens: I launched Uncollege January 23rd, 2011 and it’s been about six months since it launched. Uncollege has gone from a blog with me explaining my frustration about higher education to a global social movement.
B&W: What’s the main objective of “Uncollege,” and how are you pursuing that goal now?
DS: An important goal say in terms of what we work on?
DS: The main objective is to change the notion that college is the only path to success. A smattering of things that we’re doing include writing a book. We’re working on creating a free software which will provide education mediums. We’re in talks with existing universities and colleges about how they can use the Uncollege approach to reinvent their student experiences.
B&W: Do you think the Internet played a large role in the Uncollege movement and, if so, how?
DS: I think the Internet has contributed in a larger sense to what education is about. Education used to be about the acquisition of information. Over the years, information has gotten cheaper. Education is currently undergoing a transition from being about the acquisition of information to about the application of information. I think that’s why you’re seeing so much press about the role of education and technology. Because we can use technology to facilitate that transfer of information, so that humans can focus on the application.
B&W: I remember, on your website, you wrote that the value of college is that it proves competency in a certain area, signals to society that you’re ready to enter the workforce, and shows you can work with other people. These professional aspects are surely central to college’s value, but there have been arguments that people, left to their own devices, will pursue only the information that will lead to success or high returns financially because of the pressures of society. They don’t have the incentive to pursue knowledge that will make them functional in other walks of life. A cross-disciplinary approach, such as a liberal arts education, will make them more functional in other walks of life. Do you think the humanities and the liberal arts have a place in the Uncollege movement?
DS: I don’t see Uncollege as being contrary to what’s traditionally seen as liberal arts. I do think it’s valuable to become a well-rounded human being, but I don’t think that precludes being selfdirected. I think you’ll find that individuals, given the opportunity to choose what they want to learn, are not necessarily going to pursue the things that will bring them financial return. The entire goal of the liberal arts model is predicated on the idea that humans are interested in multiple topics. We’re not just set up to go into college and to major in economics and not think about anything else for the rest of our lives. In the same way, I’ve seen that unschoolers, who are basically doing Uncollege at a pre-higher education level, will learn about a wide cross-section of things in an interdisciplinary way. They gain that liberal arts education from the world.
B&W: I was wondering what kind of things you pursued in your own unschooling career. How did you decide those were the right things to focus on? How did that shape your current philosophy about education?
DS: I left school in 6th grade because I was bored. I had spent all of 5th grade going back and forth and doing daily dittos but not actually learning anything. I felt like what I was learning in the classroom was so divorced from what I was doing in real life. In many ways, I think the experience I had as an unschooler directed my final decision. It really prepared me to thrive in the real world. The skills and the aptitudes I developed as an unschooler—to have a way to go out and find educational resources myself instead of having them just given to me— train me with the initiative, passion, motivation, and networking ability: soft skills and emotional intelligence that are required to navigate the real world.
B&W: Did you ever pursue something late and feel like you were playing catch-up with traditional students?
DS: I ensured that I met the same requirements as anybody who would have graduated from a traditional high school. I never felt like I was playing catch-up. There may have been some catch-up in the sense that I learned the same things in different ways, but ultimately it was the same information.
B&W: Returning to Uncollege as a movement that says there is an alternative to college, would you say that the main problem with college is that it’s economically inadvisable today, or that the material taught in college is too disconnected with the skills that are useful in today’s job market?
DS: I think the latter is the biggest problem—that college isn’t preparing its graduates for success. There was a study done by Northeastern University with undergrads that found that 22.4 percent of college graduates are unemployed. And another 22 percent beyond that are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. It seems crazy to me that we’re paying so much yet learning so little.
B&W: You said earlier you were working with some universities to redesign curricula. Can you talk a bit about that?
DS: Yes, there’s a university in Spain I’ll be working with this coming year; to build a university from the ground up and design a student experience that lets students gain those skills and take the first faltering steps out from behind their desks and into the real world.
B&W: What kind of things will you be doing differently? More project learning? What kind of things will you do to break out of the traditional model?
DS: Imagine for a minute you went off to college and first semester you took four courses and the second semester you took three courses but for your fourth course you were given the learning outcomes you were expected to meet at the end of the semester, but you had to find a different way from the traditional structured formal learning environment to meet those outcomes. Either you’re going to do an internship or do a service project or an independent study or create a collaborative learning group. And slowly, more and more of your classes would be self-directed. So that by the time you finish your college experience, you’re directing your own education and won’t flounder when it comes time to direct your own life.
B&W: You write on your website that leaving college isn’t for all students. What would you recommend a young student do to decide whether college is the right fit or if they should take a more Uncollege approach?
DS: It’s a question of considering your learning style, your educational goals, and your educational background. It’s not a question for individuals who have come out of a traditional learning background, from public school going all the way through, I wouldn’t recommend dropping out of college. The transition from being a traditional learner to selfdirected learner is not an easy one. Similarly, I don’t recommend keeping cadavers in your garage—if you want to go to med school, college is probably a wise decision. But I will say that I think med school is already following an Uncollege approach. You’ve got residencies and practices and over time students take their education beyond the classroom.
B&W: Regardless of whether they choose to take an Uncollege approach, do you have any advice for first year students?
DS: It’s ludicrous that society expects everybody to know exactly what they want to do by the time they’re 18. It’s a little bit crazy that we haven’t taken steps to help people know themselves better. And college is supposed to do that. College has become this rite of passage to adulthood where people are supposed to find themselves, but it’s incredibly difficult to find yourself in an environment that abdicates all responsibility. At college we’ve usually got parents paying our bills, and people cleaning our bathrooms, and other people cooking our meals. If people really want to find themselves, whether they pursue college or Uncollege or go out and take a job or an internship or whatever it may be, the place to learn those skills and find yourself is really at the college of hard knocks—real world experience.
B&W: What kind of resources did you use to educate yourself, and what resources would you recommend to students looking to better learn about themselves?
DS: There are a host of resources on the Uncollege website that we are making more robust. Not only can you find educational content through things like Foursquare and Khan Academy, you get access to other individuals through Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. You can find ways to replace parts of that traditionally college experience on your own terms.
B&W: I looked through some of the resources you provide on your site and they’re great—you have lectures and all sorts of things—but sometimes you’re still lacking that one-on-one with a professor. What would you recommend for students who are seeking someone, whether it be a mentor or an instructor or a group, for a more seminar-style discussion?
DS: One of the great places is studentmentor.org, but when you’re going to seek out someone who has knowledge or expertise, you have to go find them. The great thing about the Internet is that you can access those individuals—you can send anyone an email, or you can send anyone a Tweet. The question of collaborative learning is still one that needs to be solved. I know of a couple groups that are working on solving that, but it’s not yet solved. There’s a startup called Skillshare that is organizing real-world classes that are taught by a teacher, but they haven’t gotten to the collaborative learning stage. We are at an inflection point where the Internet has provided platforms and people are starting to use it as a means to directly help education. Instead of just putting lectures online, people are starting to use [the Internet] to organize those real-world courses.
B&W: When you talk about the “problem of collaborative learning,” do you mean the problem of collaborative learning online or the problem of collaborative learning in general?
DS: The problem of creating collaborative learning groups in the real world outside of academic institutions.
B&W: Do you feel there’s any financial commitment to unschooling and Uncollege? Whether or not the degree is worth a lot, for many it’s at least something tangible they’re working towards. Could that lack of financial security ever derail a self-guided student?
DS: There are two parts to that question. One, selfguided learning is not free. There are costs you’re going to incur, but those costs are much less than if you were to be in an institution. I, as an unschooler, spent between three and four thousand dollars a year. And that went towards engaging in classes or traveling. While it’s true that every year of education correlates to a higher salary, it’s questionable whether that’s going to be true in the future because we’re facing a bubble [in higher education] that’s as bad if not worse than the housing bubble. Student loans are unbelievable. When we have 24 million college students who are each graduating with an average of $24,000 of debt it’s hard to see what the future will be. While a bank may be able to repossess your house, the bank can’t repossess your education. We may think that higher education lives in an ivory tower, but I think it really lives in a glass castle and that glass castle is just starting to shatter.
B&W: Is Uncollege better for people who are working towards jobs that don’t require college degrees, or is it beneficial for all in today’s economy?
DS: I think Uncollege is beneficial for everyone, because it’s not about a specific learning approach or a practice. It’s about taking charge of your education, so that whether you’re in school or out of school, you know precisely what you’re doing, why you’re there, and how you’ll get there. It’s about the process—whether you’re inside of an institution or outside of it, you’re developing the skills, emotional intelligence that will prepare you to thrive in the real world.
B&W: Where do you see the Uncollege movement going in the future?
DS: I have no idea. Two months ago Uncollege was a blog; today it’s a global social movement. In another year there will be a book published. It’s exciting to be at this inflection point, where both people inside of institutions and outside of institutions are starting to realize that—things need to change.
B&W: Returning to the role of the Internet—on the website you talk about new ways of signaling thanks to sites like LinkedIn, where you can take an Uncollege approach and still show that you’re a viable work candidate who has strong skillsets that are traditionally shown through college degrees. What’s the time increase for employers parsing the background of an applicant without a few reliable heuristics—whether it be college or a high school diploma—and how do you plan to provide the same level of assurance through your ventures?
DS: Employers are increasingly having a hard time choosing amongst employees because there are so many people going to college and graduating with 4.0 GPAs that they have no way to distinguish between applicants. There are four or five groups working on solving that, that are working on coming up with an easy way to quantify what it is that people do, but we’re not there yet. The one thing that is easy to do with an Uncollege approach, if you choose to learn completely outside the institutions, is to prove yourself through real-world accomplishments. If you can show something that you built on the Internet or something that you designed or a photograph or a project that you built or interned with a company or did something tangible.
B&W: Do you think there will ever come a time when there are so many start-up entrepreneurial types that it’s more difficult for the job market and human resources to really parse through all of that?
DS: I think we’re heading towards the free-agent economy that Dan Pink talked about in A Whole New Mind. In that world, yes, I think people are going to be forging their own paths. Uncollege is just the first step. Once you see people forging their own paths through an educational program, then you see them forging their own paths through life.