Looking For Syllabus 2.0

Becoming a fast expert in a new topic is still a big challenge.

It’s a big unmet need: there are 26 million students taking courses on Coursera, but only single digit percentages of them are finishing the courses they start. People want to ramp up to proficiency on new topics, but are missing a compelling way to do that quickly.

There are a lot of open resources available on the web, but finding, qualifying, and navigating them–let alone combining them into a self directed system–is a challenge. That’s because the tools we use today to search the web are designed for quickly finding facts, not for guiding you on a learning journey. For self-learning new topics, we need something that’s more like a coach than an encyclopedia.

In the classroom, the syllabus plays that role. The syllabus is a learning map. It tells you what you should read, in what order, and what is the broader theme you should be thinking about at each step. It also tells you how many weeks the whole thing will take. (PS if you’re into old school syllabi, check out The Open Syllabus Project at Columbia University).

There seems to be a big opportunity to reinvent the syllabus and create best of class learning guides crowdsourced from the already existing open materials on the web.

There have been several attempts already to curate online resources for learning new topics. Usually they take the form of a list of links. The problem with the list of links approach is that they are static and they are inefficient. You don’t need to read a whole link to get the main point, you want to curate little bits and pieces of open resources: 30 seconds of this podcast, a minute and a half from this youtube video, just these 4 paragraphs from this article.

The thing that is closest to a modern internet syllabi is Susan Fowler’s guide for learning physics (it’s really amazing, go check it out). What if you could have that type of curated guide for many topics that gets updated by the community over time, with inline discussion with other learners?

I think Syllabus 2.0 could look something like this:

And I think this model could work for a variety of topics, from How to Appreciate Baseball, How to Become An Expert In Machine Learning Without Doing Math, and How To Think About Cryptonetworks. We’ve created a sample syllabus for this last topic so you can see what we envision in action. It curates 8 hours of podcasts, talks and blog posts into a 30 minute guide. There are inline comments so that learners can have discussions and ask each other questions, and it’s on GitHub so that anyone can suggest changes.  

It may be useful to break out topics into a 5 minute guide, a 30 minute guide and a 3 hour guide. And because learners approach topics with different levels of background knowledge, maybe at the top of each syllabus there is a quick 5 question placement quiz that determines where in the syllabus a learner should start. Someone that can answer some basic questions about a topic can start in the middle of the syllabus while someone who is learning about a topic for the first time should start at the beginning. The syllabus should also adapt to each individual user’s style of learning and the user’s intent –– whether they are learning for fun or to achieve a career-specific goal. And the syllabus could also incorporate quiz questions throughout to close the loop and double check the learner’s understanding.

How would a syllabus project turn a profit? One possibility is that the syllabi are the free content at the top of the funnel and as people are more and more serious about learning a topic, they can pay to join an online class, fly out to take a week-long certificate-granting seminar or get matched with a learning coach. People should be able to learn for the sake of learning for free, and if their goal is to learn in order to change their career or level up professionally, they could have the option to pay to expedite and certify their learning.

There are a few learning coach models that I really like beyond traditional 1-1 coaching. There was a project in 2007 by Sean Dockray called The Public School where if enough people were learning a certain topic, they could come together and find a tutor that would work with all of them in a self-organized class. Another model I like is what Ray Batra is doing with learning gyms. He is building co-learning spaces (think WeWork, but everyone there is actively learning something) where there are coaches there to help. Another model that is less like coaching but still effective is if after reading a syllabus that interested you, you could sign up for a weeklong in-person intensive course on that subject led by an expert.

There are five projects I know of doing something in this space: Learn Anything, which lets people upvote the best resources for learning any topic, Gooru, which lets teachers use existing content on the web to create courses for K-12 content, Holloway and Golden, which are creating open source guides, and Hyperreadings, which is a permanent archival library plus curated reading guides on top. I am sure there are more.

We’re actively looking for the learning guide of the future. A large part of our newest investing thesis is about trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, and an exciting path to achieving that goal may be to modernize the syllabus and bring it online. If you are working on a better syllabus, reach out: I’m [email protected] and I can’t wait to learn from you.

“The most valuable thing humans have ever created is our knowledge.” – Juan Benet


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