I worked for many years as a paramedic in Harlem and the South Bronx. For a lot of the people I worked with, EMS was their pathway into the middle-class. Some of them had had kids as teenagers. Some of them had graduated high school. Some of them just weren't into college. This wasn't everybody, but a lot people fit that bill. 

The ambitious ones wanted to keep moving up in the world. Typically, this meant going to nursing school. These were working people with families––the kind of people who NEEDED a steady income and simply couldn't afford to ditch their jobs and attend school full-time. For them, online education was extremely appealing, at least in theory. 

I'd say 30% of all the people I worked with had attempted to obtain an online nursing degree through Excelsior College at some point in their career. Less than 5% of that group ever graduated. These are not official numbers, but they are roughly accurate to the best of my knowledge.

First, a little backstory…

My pa' was born in a one-room adobe hut in the New Mexico desert during the winter of 1929. He started working as a logger when he was 12, laying railroad tracks when he was 14. At 19, he joined the military. At 23, he enrolled in East LA Community College. Two-years later he transferred to UCLA, ultimately earning a Master's in Zoology and then a few years later getting his PhD in Education. To pay for school (undergrad and grad) and support our family in the early days of his academic career, he worked pipeline construction. He lived the American dream.

For more than thirty years, my pa' taught Anatomy & Physiology at his alma mater, East LA Community College. His students were immigrants, drop-outs, wanderers, late-bloomers, ex-cons, working class strivers and single moms. Many of them worked their balls off; only a fraction succeeded. 

The point: Educating "non-traditional" students is really fucking hard. 

When I saw the guys I worked with on the ambulance studying for nursing school, it always reminded me of him. 

Me, I had it easy. My pa' was a college professor. He taught me algebra when I was in kindergarten and read me Hemingway at bedtime. Sure, I worked two jobs to pay for college, but my head start was huge. And I went to Columbia. Not a coincidence. 

Thus my ears perked up when I heard Jose Ferreira talk about his startup Knewton at the launch party for Anya Kamenetz's new book, DIY U. DIY U is about the coming revolution in online education. Knewton is an adaptive learning platform with big big dreams of revolutionizing education, online and otherwise. First, test prep; then the world.

Jose talked a lot about how Knewton was using computers, machine learning and the web to tailor curriculums and courses to individual students. If I remember correctly, the phrase he used was "mass customization." Having a) seen so many of my friends try and fail to complete degrees online, and b) been a recent consumer of education, both online and off, I was intrigued yet skeptical.

As I see it, the problem with online education and the whole concept of the DIY University is that it solves a smaller problem than it creates. Namely, it solves the problem created by a one-size-fits-all course structure that come from the brick-and-mortar school system: curriculums are not tailored to the individual and thus produce a sub-optimal learning experience. What it eliminates (as far as I can tell) is the a) intimate social structure and bonds that come from being forced into a classroom for several hours a week, b) rigor and discipline of being forced to get shit done on a fixed schedule, and c) peer pressure that drives much of the psychology of academic achievement. 

For college grads and folks studying for standardized tests, this lack of community is not a problem. They are already motivated. The market for Knewton in this segment is huge and well-established. But for students in the mass "non-tradtional" market––for my old co-workers and my pa's students––I still don't see how they crack the code. 

And really, this is only a problem if Knewton aspires to break into the mass market and revolutionize education as we know it. Talk to Jose for 5 minutes and you'll see that that is precisely the plan.

I'm not saying he or Knewton can't do it. I'm just saying that it's really fucking hard and that I don't see how they get there. Then again, that's what most people say about entrepreneurs peddling disruptive technologies. 

But if Knewton does succeed, it'll be because they, unlike everyone else, solved for these problems too and finally made online education into a truly social experience.

Now, a couple caveats: 1) I am not an expert in education, online or otherwise, and; 2) I don't have intimate or special knowledge of Knewton's product/battle plan.

The cool thing is that if they actually succeed, not only will Knewton and Jose make truckloads of money, but they'll also do something fantastic for humanity. 

I hope to learn more about what they're up to in the coming months. They are on a noble mission. I wish them luck.

UPDATE: An excellent comment from Hacker News 

2 points by nazgulnarsil 1 minute ago | link

short version: the kind of people attracted to online colleges are the kind of people that need the support structures of traditional colleges to succeed. the kind of self starters that can excel at a self paced, self disciplined class probably don't need it.

UPDATE #2: From the Twitters, a response from Knewton

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