I'm Kieran Mathieson, geek, educator, and innovator. This site is about my work on learning.

Having skills improves people's lives. If you can write software, analyze data, etc, you can earn a good living. You can buy a house in a good neighborhood, and send your kids to good schools.

Researchers know a lot about how students learn skills. Unfortunately, universities don't use that knowledge. Graduates aren't as skilled as they could be. This matters. It affects people's lives.

My project is CyberCourse (http://cybercour.se), or Cyco for short. It's a philosophy, set of practices, and open source software to:

  • Help authors write Cycourses, textbook replacements that emphasize problem solving. Cycourses use patterns (schemas), big ideas, formative feedback, etc. If you're into learning research, you know these terms.
  • Help instructors run flipped, blended, skill-focused courses. Students do many exercises, get human feedback on every one, and get one-on-one help from experts.
  • Help graders give consistent formative feedback. They could be advanced students, retired teachers... anyone with the skills, anywhere in the world.
  • Help students learn how to complete tasks, by themselves. That's the bottom line.

Is it practical? Most professors won't spend time making a good Cycourse. Perhaps 1 in 20 will, given the opportunity. The opportunity comes from a business model where authors can sell access to Cycourses. Students buy access, instead of textbooks. Because Cyco is open source and community supported, authors control 100% of the revenue. They can afford to charge low prices.

Who wins?

  • Students learn skills that improve their standard of living. They spend less on Cycourses than on textbooks.
  • Authors (the 5% of professors who write Cycourses) follow their passion for learning, and still pay their bills.
  • The other 95% of professors don't lecture. They help students one-on-one, with writing, statistics, etc. That's what they trained to do, and what they like to do.

You can download and install the Cyco software yourself, or try a demo. Go to http://cybercour.se to see the magic.

Cyco extends the venerable CoreDogs, which you may have heard of. CoreDogs is an intro course on Web tech, released in 2008. Cyco is the fulfillment of what I started with CoreDogs.

Cyco is going well. The software is "Wow!" but it needs a community of geeks, teachers, and authors to really take off. If you like what you see:

Frustrated studentUniversity students learn skills, like programming, writing, and problem solving. Skills are important not just for employment. Problem solving, for example, matters in all aspects of life.

Doing is what matters. After a skills course, students should be able to do tasks without help. Ask them to write an article, and they should be able to research the topic, draft an article, and write it. Independently.

It's broken

At many schools, courses like programming and math don't work very well. The courses have high failure rates. Even students who pass don't learn what they should. Give them a task slightly different from the exercises in the textbook, and they're flummoxed.

It's not just tech courses. Students should learn how to work with other people, communicate, and think critically. These "soft" skills aren't easy to learn. As the saying goes, "the hard things are easy, and the soft things are hard."

We can do better.

We can help students learn skills effectively and efficiently. Researchers have figured out how, but few universities use their findings. We should change that.

Constraints

  • Student time and money. We need to give students as much as we can for every hour and dollar they spend. Fortunately, we can improve skill learning without breaking students' backs or bank accounts.
  • Faculty time. It's hard enough for professors to keep up with research in physics, computer science, finance, etc. Ask professors to be experts in learning research as well? It's not realistic. Fortunately, we can improve skills courses without driving professors crazy.
  • Administration. Change is hard for any organization. For universities, with tenure, academic silos, traditions of independence, etc., change is almost impossible. Innovations relying on significant change may be doomed from the start. Fortunately, we can improve without changing universities' administrative habits. Semesters, courses, sections, credits, all stay the same.

The bottom line

CyberCourse, aka Cyco, can help universities help students learn skills. It starts with existing learning research, which shows us how to help students learn. However, learning principles have to be implemented with care.

  • We need an instructional model that doesn't burden students, professors, or institutions.
  • We need a business model to create and maintain the instructional model, without increasing costs for anyone.
  • We need tech to pull this off. However, we can't add a new burden to university IT departments. Many are stretched too thin as it is.

You're saying to yourself, "Self, this can't be done!" Yes, it can. It takes some creative thinking. We need to unbundle professors' jobs, rethink course design, replace the textbook with something better, and support a new kind of educational entrepreneur. Read on to learn more.

Perhaps the most difficult change is to be realistic about what it takes for average students to learn skills. Real skills, not memorizing enough to pass a multiple choice exam. If anything stymies Cyco, it will be the belief that what passes for skill education today is sufficient.

Cycourses

Cycourses are Cyco Web sites that replace textbooks. They implement ideas from education research, like:

  • Deep learning. Don't just memorize facts. Learn how to do things with those facts.
  • Outcome-driven learning. Focus on what students need to learn. Drop everything else from the course.
  • Formative feedback. No multiple-choice tests. Students do tasks. They get specific feedback on how to improve.
  • Personal interaction with experts. Students have one-on-one help when they get stuck.
  • Nudging. If a student falls behind, she gets an email. "Are you OK? Do you need help with the course?"

What's in a Cycourse? Naturally, it varies, according to topic, student preparation, etc, but they tend to have these things in common:

  • Students read content online.
  • Students do many exercises. They submit solutions through the CyberCourse.
  • Students get feedback on each exercise. Not just a score, but a list of things to improve.
  • Grading is done by instructors, teaching assistants, or outsourced to cheaper workers. An optimized work flow means grading is fast, and standardized.
  • Students get one-on-one help when they get stuck. There can be regular class sessions, or help-on-demand.

The result? Students get value for every hour they spend. Less busy work, more learning.

Instructors also use their time well. They only do things that only people can do, like showing students how to improve. Computers do the rest.


 

Cyco starts with learning research. The Cyco Way is a model of skill learning, plus practices for designing effective Cycourses. The skill learning model is about:

  • Patterns, aka schemas
  • Big ideas
  • Metacognition
  • Individual learning

Cycourse design practices include:

  • Determining outcomes
  • Choosing patterns for artifacts and problem solving processes
  • Using big ideas to explain patterns
  • Designing student experiences that help them learn problem solving
  • Metacognitive awareness, e.g., helping students be realistic about what they know

One outcome is making students into pre-experts, or prexperts. Prexperts are task novices who have some of the thinking skills of experts, when it comes to solving problems. You can learn more about these things on the wiki.

The Cyco software is designed around the Way. For example, authors create patterns as information objects, separate from the rest of the content. They then insert pattern references into didactic content as needed. Students read them there, but they also have a pattern catalog they can peruse when doing exercises.

This might not make sense until you try it. The point is that the Cyco software directly implements ideas from the research literature. The result? Authors can bake chocolatey learning science goodness into their Cycourses, without being learning experts themselves.

The three parts of Cyco are:

  • The software. It's open source. It's beta, but it works.
  • The wiki. Explains the Cyco Way, documents the software. Anyone can edit it (once they get an account). The wiki is live.
  • The community. This part is nascent.

The project won't take off without a community of geeks, teachers, and authors. You could be a Cyco.

AuthorWho makes Cycourses? You. You choose the topics. Make your Cycourses free, or charge for access. If you charge, you get all of the revenue.

You could supplement your income. You could even make your entire living this way. You would have time to make your Cycourses excellent.

Write for mass markets, or niche markets. Imagine:

  • A math Cycourse for Detroit high school students, with Detroit examples, Detroit assignments, and Detroit personalities.
  • A business writing Cycourse for aerospace engineers, with exactly the writing tasks they need.
  • A biology Cycourse for one university in Florida, featuring species that are around campus.
  • A human resources Cycourse for one company, helping employees learn the policies and workflows they need to follow.

Publishing companies can't afford to serve niches this small. You can, because you don't have printing costs, distribution costs, a sales force, middle managers, a board of directors, or a big building downtown. You can charge a low price, and still make a good income.

What now?

  • See a vision of the project.
  • Learn who would benefit from the project. Whether you're a foundation, a giant corporation, or an individual teacher - you win.
  • Learn about me. Who am I? Why am I doing this? Why do I think I can succeed?