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Online Education 2.0: Making Learning at O’Reilly School of Technology

It became clear to me early on that the “secret sauce” in an O’Reilly School of Technology education for our students is the personal interaction and mentoring of our instructors. At O’Reilly School of Technology, we frequently hear comments like:


Some parts of the assignments were really challenging and I would get stuck. I would send Mary my error code and instead of telling me the answer, she would ask me leading questions, or give me hints and clues. I would find the answer myself. It would take three or four tries, but she hung in there the whole way without saying, ‘This is what you should do.’ And because it was so challenging getting to that point, I actually remembered it. I understood it because I had to figure it out myself. -Dana Nourie, Community Manager, VM Ware


Right away she gave me feedback and it made me want to try harder. She was very helpful if I had questions or if there were things I needed to know.
– Eric Prothero-Brooks, Computer Science Student


They have been very patient with me when I needed help. This is a good approach because you don’t learn anything if it’s spoon-fed. They helped me to find the way to the answer without giving me the answer.
–Jan Milosh, Junior Developer, Pykl Studios

Unfortunately, most students in mainstream education have been trained to focus on finding the single right answer to pass a specific test, or to do whatever is necessary just to get a good grade. Yet the deep learning, the knowledge that stays with a student beyond the test or a course, is rarely earned by studying for a test. Rather it is rooted in attempts to solve difficult problems that matter, usually in collaboration with an experienced mentor. As Eric, a community college student in Victoria, B.C. reports:


I really loved the fact that, unlike more traditional schooling, there were no exams or midterms. It is something, as a student of IT, I have found totally bizarre to be asked to sit down and write code by pencil, with no outside notes or computer access…to memorize buckets of terms and definitions…when in reality, in the workforce, this will never happen.

It’s easy to forget how new formal education is in human history. Until relatively recently, literacy was available only to an élite minority, yet learning has always been an integral dimension of the human experience. There were no Mammoth Hunting 101 courses for aspiring hunters in the Paleolithic Age. Elder hunters taught the young in the ways of the hunt; the young apprentice hunters learned gradually, then picked up the reins and, eventually, became elders themselves, prepared to teach the next generation.

In fact, most learning continues to happen outside the temples of knowledge, in intimate communities-of-practice, families, and other social groups. When practices align with how people learn in the “real world,” the power of education to unlock human potential is maximized.

When making is at the center of education, students are given the tools to build something meaningful to them–a text, a module of code based on a real problem, a professional portfolio of work. The role of the instructor is to provide coaching, feedback, and encouragement, rather than facts or references to “the textbook.” As an O’Reilly School of Technology student put it recently in a video statement

The key thing [about O’Reilly School of Technology] is the opportunity to work on real projects rather than just reading and answering questions.

Unlike the conventional one-size-fits-all approach, instructors at O’Reilly School of Technology make efforts to determine what an individual student needs to reach the “zone of proximal development,” the next step as their learning unfolds. The “Socratic Dialogue” at the center of an O’Reilly School of Technology education consists of multiple interchanges with students concerning the projects they have submitted. Such dialogue happens rarely, if ever, in a traditional drill-and-kill or lecture-based class.

The wholesale move to online education is also an opportunity to reaffirm the value of a constructionist approach to learning and not simply replicate business-as-usual on a larger scale. Face-to-face education is comparatively expensive to deliver and inconvenient. It is hard to argue with the logic that a lecture can be delivered to 100,000 as easily as it can to 100, but the Year of the MOOC has yielded mixed results. An O’Reilly School of Technology staffer shared a report from the WSJ which illustrated that low completion rates are largely due to a lack of attention to the personal and social dimensions of learning and apprenticeship.

One large MOOC provider made adjustments to its practices and increased completion rates from 24%-51%, to 30%-83%. The story isolates a few key factors: 1) they targeted parts of courses that were causing many of their students to stumble or quit; 2) they put more effort into checking in with students; 3) they significantly reduced the length of their correspondence with direct, targeted emails; and 4) they set up and cultivated Google Hangouts that allowed their students to interact informally with one another and the course tutors. O’Reilly School of Technology has been using many of the same strategies since our inception in 1997. Our students report that this is a difference that makes a difference.

We need to make a clear distinction between online education practices based on banking and those that are based on making. Banking education (a term coined by Paulo Freire) refers to the transfer of facts and information into a passive vessel (the student). The banking metaphor is the root of the (yes, still prevalent) “chalk-and-talk” instructional model that controls so much classroom discourse. The limitations of this model are likely apparent to anyone who has been alienated by typical educational practices.

In the making model of education, instructors aim to scaffold student learning based on their particular stage of development, without ever giving them answers. Rather, they ask leading questions, and offer hints and encouragement. This may be frustrating for students who have been trained by their teacher-bankers to look for the single right answer, but most eventually understand that they will need to be able to think and act for themselves in order to succeed in the flux of the real world.

We understand that our students will need to be able to execute real work on their own if they are to succeed. We know that providing a making model of instruction is the most effective way to train IT professionals.

This topic fascinates me, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll explore it in greater depth in future blog posts in the coming weeks and months as I consider these questions: How should e-learning and online education evolve? How can it be assessed? Moreover, how can it be shaped as a resource for a more democratic, empowered, and humane society? What is e-learning 2.0? What should it be? Well, in actuality, that’s all up to us. Your participation is critical, whether you’re a student, educator, employer, or anyone interested in the potential to radically change the landscape of education for the better. I invite you to join me here in a dialogue on these vital topics, as well as on my posts to come.

  • Robert Arrington

    I am a second year CS student at DePauw University. Not at all being of the typical demographic being the oldest full-time, degree seeking student in the 175 year history. I come from an extensive technology background; just never degreed. I have been given the opportunity to tutor some of the first year labs and I love it! As I have learned from some of my favorite instructors over time, it is important not to just give out the answer to a problem. Instead the best learning comes from guiding, leading, questioning and reviewing possibilities. It does take longer and often is more frustrating to the student, but in the long run, the learning is more permanent.

    • Kerry Beck

      Excellent comment. I couldn’t agree with you more Robert. A really good instructor invests the time and energy to guide students to figure stuff out on their own. It sounds like you’re that kind of mentor and learned that way as well.

  • Matthew Bronson

    Hi, Robert and thanks so much for the comment. I wonder what training the tutors receive at Depauw to resist the temptation to just give the right answer. It certainly goes against the grain of so much of what passes for teaching and learning. My student teachers at UC Davis complain constantly of the pressure to “teach to the test.” This is ironic, at best, given the parallel push to the Common Core in K-12 education, which embodies an attempt to raise the level of critical thinking and intellectual engagement of the nation’s students.

    How can we channel the rightful demand for accountability in a way that will benefit students and enhance learning rather than diminish it? All of the research I have read indicates that the one-one tutoring approach based on discovery and inquiry is superior to chalk-and-talk or traditional section meetings. Under the up-and-coming “flipped instruction” model, this becomes the dominant mode of practice,–and test scores go up as a side-effect of more effective teaching. But what will it take to get education in general to “flip out”” and recenter on what actually works to support learning?