Online education: We're learning what doesn't work

As the William Lowe Bryan quote goes, "education is one of the few things a person is willing to pay for and not get." What, then, does that say about free online college classes like those offered by sites like Udacity?

A lot apparently:

...all of these efforts have been hampered by the same basic problem: Very few people seem to finish courses when they’re not sitting in a lecture hall. Udacity employs state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated pedagogical strategies to keep their users engaged, peppering students with quizzes and gamifying their education with progress meters and badges. But a recent study found that only 7% of students in this type of class actually make it to the end.

I believe that the web is a legitimate place to teach, but I don't think educational content should be commoditized like tech news or cat videos. I think the more an online education platform relies on volumes for profits—or the more a business model uses "education" as an eyeball-getter for some other purpose—the poorer the educational product will be. That's because, like other free(ish) internet things, the product and customer are often the opposite of the ostensible.

Just because the web has driven the cost of information to zero, don’t assume it will or should do the same for education. The two are very different.

The web is a candy land of information. Facebook statuses, Google searches, even Wikipedia entries all exist because people have a sweet tooth for information. Instant-information sites are great, I guess, but I don't think the business models that built such sites lend themselves to educational business models.

Education is much more than the distribution of information. An educated person is much more than an informed person.

Education should cost (someone) something. People who consume education should pay for education either as a product or as a service. And people who educate should be compensated based on their ability to educate, not their ability to create web traffic.

I also think calling this first generation of free education sites "online universities" is misguided. I don't think the university experience, in the pre-21st-century context, can be reproduced online. University, the product, is something people purchase for reasons that go way beyond lecture hall learning. The social experiences that happen in the conventional college setting can't be emulated online. And they shouldn't be.

I think web-based education will continue to evolve, and most likely become less core and more niche. The very best online education platforms will charge for their products and offer a very clear value proposition to their customers, who will buy (and complete) the education as a stepping stone toward practical economic goals.

Maybe instead of using the web to "innovate" education by gamifying and enabling the already-short attention spans spawned by the instant-information-gratification era, online educators will innovate the web by figuring out ways of re-introducing critical thinking into learning.

I'm not saying this will be an easy task, but I think it's one worth taking on. Otherwise, by molding "education" to the Facebook-status-quo we surrender to one of the greatest ironies of the web: it's so open, yet most of us tend to curl up in one corner of it and nurse the same bottles of highly liquid, nutritionless information we did the day before.

The MacSparky Email Field Guide

By now, you've likely heard that David Sparks has released yet another Field Guide. In this one, he had the onions to take on email. I have to admit, back when I heard David was working on a book about email, I was a bit worried.

Email seems to be a subject that either invokes vomit or apathy depending on the person. How can someone write an interesting book about email?

Well, the only way I know to answer that question is this: get David's book. He really hit it out of the park. I thought I knew everything there was to know about email, but I quickly found out that David knew more. Buying Email should be a pretty easy decision. Who wouldn't want to get better at something they spend hours a day doing?

David's approach for this book in some ways reminds me of the Nest thermostat. David took a mundane, but infinitely pervasive problem—email, that is—and assembled a set of solutions that are as practical as they are elegantly presented.

I challenge you to find a more aesthetically pleasing piece of technical writing. Mike Rhode's original illustrations are fantastic.

Official website for Email


PDF Version

Don't bring a knife to a punch down fight

"You're not gonna do this with a pocket knife."

So says Gabe Weatherhead, the grittiest-DIY-hero-of-geeks you may ever have the pleasure of hearing online, before taking us on a fascinating journey through the conduit of his home network.

As someone who finds himself sewing more and more of his devices together with twisted pairs of copper, I really enjoyed the first episode of Gabe and Erik's new Technical Difficulties podcast. And this is just the start.

So put down your pocket knives, kids. Put in your earbuds, and get out your credit cards.

A net as big as the sea

With billions in funding, the N.S.A. is able to spy with nearly unthinkable scope:

The N.S.A. hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. In some cases, companies say they were coerced by the government into handing over their master encryption keys or building in a back door. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.

The most disturbing message in this article to me, however, is the tacit message that current and future U.S. national security depends on the federal government's ability to know every communication and transaction that takes place online.

Maybe modern warfare hasn't changed all that much. This is the 21st century's take on carpet bombing.

Leaning back

More time thinking. Less time overtly doing. That's really the gist of this highly quotable Economist piece on "leaning back" from work.

Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.

And this is why people are so afraid to step off their hamster wheels in that highly inefficient physical location most people call "work."

Crazy talk about email

I had the great fun and honor of joining buddies Gabe Weatherhead and Erik Hess on the Generational podcast. We talked about email, but instead of swimming with the usual email narrative currents, we talked about how we actually like email.

So far I haven't received any death threats, and the universe seems to be intact. So far.

Dispatch: the mail app I didn't delete

I really like Dispatch, and this is coming from a guy who tries all the new email apps but never writes about any of them. I feel compelled to say something about Dispatch, though. I've been using it daily since Federico Viticci reviewed it.

Most new email apps that I buy get deleted in less than a week, but Dispatch is sticking. Here are a few reasons why. . .

Native processing

I can send links straight to Instapaper for reading later, fire emails directly into the iOS OmniFocus app, and even send messages straight to Evernote. I love being able to act on mail locally (as I would in OS X) without forwarding mail to some hacky email account first.

Gestures that work

People gave a lot of praise to Mailbox, but I never could master the swipe-to-archive-but-not-too-fast-or-else-you'll-delete technique. Not only is Dispatch's swipe-to-archive gesture more intuitive, there's always an undo option for any action you take.

Making mistakes while using any app is inevitable. The undo button that appears atop the app after every action is one of the single best features of the app.


I can star email with Dispatch. It sounds unremarkable, but starring mail is a hugely fundamental aspect of my email workflow, and it amazes me how many other apps don't support Gmail stars.

Message first, subject second

This is a nuance that only an email snob like me would comment on. But I really appreciate the way that Dispatch conceals the To and Subject lines when composing a new message. It has a similar feel to Drafts, where you naturally prioritize writing content before titling and sending content. This is just how I think things should work, and I appreciate this subtle design feature a whole bunch.


The snippets feature in Dispatch is really useful. Being able to preload common chunks of text is a major productivity boost on any device that doesn't have a full-sized keyboard. But like Federico mentioned in his review, I just don't get why Dispatch didn't simply hook into TextExpander. This is really my only complaint about the app so far.

More broadly, I don't get why someone hasn't made a good email app that supports TextExpander. I really don't. It seems like such an obvious void to fill.

I'm excited

I'm excited to see where Dispatch goes from here. It's a beautiful app made by people who clearly think about email the way I do. I hope it only gets better.

Clarify: screenshot-based documentation evolved

Speaking of that last Mac Power Users episode, my favorite podcasting pair, David and Katie, mentioned a great Mac app called Clarify.

Clarify is the kind of software I would selfishly create for myself if I were a developer. It makes organizing and sharing screenshots so easy I laugh a little bit at my pre-Clarify life each time I use it.

If you routinely send people screenshots—especially multiple screenshots—to show them how to do things, you should buy Clarify. This post should really end here, but for you not-too-busy folks, there's more. . .

Before Clarify, I would take several screenshots, then label the file names sequentially like step 1, step 2, etc., then open each one in Preview or some other annotation program and put circles, boxes, and text on the images. Then I'd attach them all to an email.

Now that workflow seems akin to clubbing a cow when I want a hamburger.

With Clarify, I just take the screenshots and drag them in. It automatically sorts them by time so they're already in the right order. After that, I can label/annotate each. When I'm done, I can PDF it, send it to Evernote, or copy the whole "document" to my clipboard.

The end product looks ridiculously professional, too.

Replanting the RSS forest

I considered letting Google Reader's end be the end of RSS for me. My relationship with RSS has been mixed over the years. There have certainly been tender, loving, "I can never be without you" moments. But there've also been bouts of abuse on my daily attention budget. Through all that, however, I stayed.

And rather than divorcing myself from RSS completely now, I'm taking a more constructive approach. I'm in the process of reimagining the role RSS should play in my life. More on that later—someday/maybe.

If you're looking for help, Mac Power Users episode 143, "RSS and Replacing Google Reader" is a great resource. My good friend Gabe Weatherhead is also in the middle of a series on Google Reader successors.

Right now I'm using Feed Wrangler. There are things I really like about it and things that I don't. But it's causing me to use RSS very differently than before, and that alone is enough for now.