Hacking Higher Education With John Cook and Ben Huh

This article was written by Elizabeth Wiley and Patrick Doherty.

John Cook and Ben Huh

Thursday, April 5th was the kick-off event for MCDM’s Hacking Edu month. Around 80 people attended the event held at Wine World, which was co-hosted by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. John Cook, co-founder of Geekwire, and Ben Huh, head of Cheezburger Inc got things underway with a conversation about the effectiveness of the current formal education system. In terms of their own experiences and its relevance to their particular industries, neither felt the current system was making the grade.

[UPDATED: Watch the full video of the event here]

Huh said, higher education is facing the threat of irrelevance. Referencing his own experience, he questioned the long-term validity of expensive undergraduate and graduate programs when the main benefit he perceives is entry into an exclusive, well-connected network. With student loan debt recently passing credit card debt, it’s worth questioning whether a bachelor’s degree that no longer ensures employment is worth the cost.

Ben Huh

For Huh, it would seem not. In fact, as a graduate from Northwestern University, if Huh went to college today, he stated he would probably drop out.

Huh argues against just changing the old system. Instead, he says that an entirely new system needs to be invented. Huh pointed to Tech Stars as a model for what education could do. Tech Stars is a “mentorship-driven seed stage investment program” that accepts 10 companies each year in four different cities around the U.S.

And reinventing the system is important. Huh believes that Seattle is on the cusp of becoming a world-class city, but needs more world-class education to reach that level.

Obviously, the problems in the education system go deeper than just higher education. The K-12 system is also flawed. When asked, Huh said that Washington State specifically is “shooting itself in the foot with regressive tax funding.” He was in favor of the income tax for the highest earning residents because we need to be able to fund the future for children.

John Cook, later remarked on his own experience with higher education and also judged it a less than stellar experience. In January, Cook published a letter to Stanford after a proposed New York City branch campus was abandoned. He believes that competition among universities would provide higher quality education here in Seattle but also likes the idea of shorter, focused learning opportunities such as Tech Stars, which allow students to tailor their education needs to what is most useful for them.

Cook and Huh raised more questions than they answered, but provided a good starting place for the community to begin the process of “Hacking Edu” and looking towards the future of education.

Following the Cook/Huh conversation, event attendees shared their own experiences and were encouraged to contribute their ideas about the five foundations of education identified by the MCDM students and faculty: the tools and venues for learning, teachers and students, content and skills, funding and support, and measuring success and evaluation. participants were given access to a series of related questions posted on the Wine World Windows and then given erasable magic markers to write their answers directly on the windows. It provided for a nice visual component for the evening and some useful ideas. These ideas will be collected and archived for use over the rest of the month’s events.

Through conversations like last night’s, as well as gathering thoughts and ideas from the broader community, the goal of Hacking Edu is to come up with one big idea that will work towards making the education experience a more relevant and effective one. Powered by the minds and experiences of MCDM students it’s a safe bet that the idea selected will probably leverage the power of digital media and social networks. That is after all, why they are hacking their own education.

photographs by dan thornton

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