The college as student/project matchmaker

What would happen if instead of encouraging students to build yet another fake bookstore project we had encouraged them to write wikiscanner?

They’d have changed the world, that’s what.

What if instead of having statistics students take multiple choice tests on data analysis we had them examine earmarks or deficit spending using ManyEyes?

They’d change the world, that’s what.

What would happen if our Modern Language students translated popular foreign blogs into English, or our film production students organized to film every presidential candidate’s appearance within 20 miles and post the video on YouTube or Blip.tv? What would happen if our chemistry students went to the Salvation Army Store and bought historical toys to test them for lead, then posted the results?

We do a lot of real world projects at the college I’m at — in fact, it’s one of the most admirable facets of the college. We’re truly a leader in this regard.

But my belief is we can (and will) will go much further along this road in the coming years.

Why? Because in the old world there was a real cost to real world projects. Very often you were putting students at the helm of something expensive — equipment, time, something. Putting inexperienced students in charge of those resources was at best a risk, and at worst a danger.

And we built our educational system around those parameters. In the manufacturing economy, you had to run students through simulations of work, because failure was EXPENSIVE and publication RARE. Products required expensive investment, equipment, resources. And even more purely intellectual products had physical limits on them:  in the non-networked economy, publication was the privilege of the few, and outlets for one’s findings were hard to come by. There wasn’t really much of a publication tier for undergraduates.

So, in many cases we waited until people were in graduate school or in industry to encourage them to do things with real impact. And we spent our time in college with them preparing them so they wouldn’t fail when they eventually did engage with the world-at-large.

There are (and were) exceptions, and many of them. There are stunningly good programs at my college that put students in Art and Architecture and Safety Studies in positions where they do great work, real work, in service to the greater community. And when I see such things, I’m just inspired and proud.

But I’m saying in our net-enabled world, we can make such learning the norm, and not the exception.

The reason why is simple economics. In a networked information economy, failure is cheap. Production is cheap. And if you produce something worthwhile, distribution is free.

Film students don’t have to tie up the professional grade camera (at least not for everything) — they can film events on a $100 USB device. Statistics students don’t have to pay for database access or tools — there’s a wealth of public data out there, all waiting for someone to sift through it. Translation of a foreign blog takes only a student and a computer.

The other day I wrote an application that posts to twitter every time a bill or resolution is passed in the House of Representatives. It took me two hours. It didn’t cost a dime.

There are literally thousands of worthwhile projects out there, just waiting for a student to take them on. But students aren’t familiar enough with the landscape of real-world needs to know where these opportunities are.

If we want real academic engagement, we have to treat undergraduate education the way we treat our most successful graduate programs. We have to see a major part of our role as pairing interested students with interesting problems. We have to be a bit of a matchmaking service. Because that’s how we are best going to help our students change the world.

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2 Comments on “The college as student/project matchmaker”

  1. [...] terms with is that in an environment where failure is inexpensive, undergraduates can be pushed to solve real problems, rather than to practice solving problems they might encounter once they get out of [...]

  2. [...] are endless possibilities if people just took the time to think and dare to be innovative. Mike Caulfield blogged a few months ago about what would happen if students stopped working in silos and started working on real world [...]


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