Taking a Different Approach to Higher Education
By Luba Vangelova
When helicopter search-and-rescue specialist David Dobias decided to switch careers, he read up on entrepreneurship and found a mentor, then an internship at a venture capital firm. What happened next surprised him.
“I began rapidly learning subjects such as accounting and finance that I’d taken in college but had no interest in at the time, because they had no relevance,” he recalls. “In three months, I learned more of value by working alongside other inspired people, than I had in the previous decade in the school system. I went from business illiterate to leading the firm’s consulting arm.”
This ignited a passion to create that kind of learning environment for others. Looking to business incubators and leadership development programs for inspiration, he developed a concept for a self-organizing community of learners. It was only after Dobias secured a team and $400,000 worth of investment funding that he came across the work of Dr. Sugata Mitra, the 2013 TED Prize Winner, whose experiments (showing that illiterate Indian children could learn even advanced scientific principles on their own) had prompted him to coin the term self-organized learning environment (SOLE) and develop a SOLE toolkit for the K-12 space.
Mitra calls it “learning at the edge of chaos”—the space between order and disorder that is most conducive to new ideas. “He showed that all that was needed was peer-to-peer interaction, access to information, and compelling questions,” Dobias says. “It applies not just to primary education, but to human education at any age.”
Dobias got Mitra’s blessing to use his term, and Black Mountain SOLE—billed as the world’s first SOLE for higher learning—opened its doors in September, sharing a mountainside campus with a YMCA facility about 15 miles east of Asheville, North Carolina.
The first crop of students—who, along with the five organizers, refer to themselves as SOLEmates—range in age from 16 to 60. They are free to enroll for as little as one day, but most have made three- to nine-month-long commitments for now. The risk of being part of an unproven concept is mitigated by the “pay it forward” fee structure that allows them to defer payment (about $10,000 a year) until they’re established in their careers.
What they get from Black Mountain SOLE, Dobias says, is a supportive environment, including a well-rounded team of staffers whose backgrounds range from veterinary biology to software engineering and personal development. “Because we are making a paradigm shift, from an institution-based to a self-directed ecosystem, there needs to be a support structure in place,” he says. With no grades or exams, “I’m not there to judge you, but to have a conversation about how to create what you want from that opportunity. … A lot of it is confronting your own insecurity over having control over your life, making decisions, and creating things you want to create, rather than having an institution do something to you.”
Students also benefit from being part of a community of engaged learners, Dobias says. Passion is “contagious; even if others’ passions are unrelated, it helps you identify yours more clearly,” he notes. “The language of ‘yes,’ and the community based on what’s possible, is different from what people typically get in schools.”
Dobias is quick to add that SOLEs won’t spell the end for traditional universities. “Those work well for fields such as medical research or engineering,” Dobias says. “But for entrepreneurship, the arts, communications, or other fields where the learning isn’t as codified, it doesn’t make sense to use the same models. For those fields, you don’t need a university degree; in fact, it will probably confuse you, because it will be so different from what you will see in the business world.”
The SOLEmates’ interests run the gamut from horticulture to micro-manufacturing, jewelry making, and health training. They create their own “fertile sharing grounds,” as Dobias calls them, based on commonalities. One group created a makerspace by collaborating with an Asheville maker group. Another group created an art studio and engaged nearby artists as teachers. (Funds are available for general-interest instructors and activities; students typically buy materials and hire and pay for niche teachers, though they’ve found that some choose to freely share their knowledge.)
These types of experiences allow the SOLEmates to learn something more than the subjects—“they learn their own efficacy,” Dobias says, “as opposed to looking to me to say ‘This is good, this matters.’ That confidence is invaluable.”
The SOLE is designed to be low-overhead, agile and democratic, so the SOLEmates’ involvement extends to deciding what the SOLE should do, and how. The staffers hold twice-weekly community meetings and adjust their approach as needed. For example, they scrapped a core curriculum of “personal survival skills” in favor of week-long cohorts on specific subjects, and they renegotiated the cafeteria contract because it wasn’t meeting people’s needs.
The staffers organize the cohorts and help the teams be more efficient, by helping them find and use the most appropriate tools and processes, such as project planning software or tracking metrics. They also individually coach the participants and facilitate their projects. “We help them think through problems,” Dobias says.
It’s up to each individual to determine how long to remain at the SOLE.
THE NEXT STEP
A few SOLEmates have already moved on, including one who spent two months developing a business concept, raising capital, lining up partners, and securing a space at a business incubator. Others have become resident entrepreneurs, because they enjoy the collaborative environment and can do their work remotely. “When you’re ready [to leave], you’re ready,” Dobias says. “The point is people getting clear on their passions and taking action. … It’s not dependent on finishing the program or on us saying you’re ready.”
The notion that a college degree is needed to land a good job may already be eroding, with high-profile companies such as Google hiring more people without degrees. Besides, Dobias says, “people who go through a SOLE type of program won’t be sending in job applications.” Because they’ll be pursuing opportunities in industries they’re truly passionate about, they will develop relationships, ask for mentors, and line up apprenticeships. They will create the necessary social capital and find ways, he says, to “add value before their first paycheck.”
Dobias thinks the time is right for the SOLE concept to proliferate. A few similar groups are already trying to get off the ground, and the Black Mountain SOLE team is eager to use its seed funding to help. They established a 501(c)3 nonprofit so they can serve as a fiscal agent for others, and they are creating a free playbook that others can follow. They decided to call the nonprofit Geronimo Education—because, as with jumping out of helicopters, there’s considerable risk and no guarantee of success. But they hope that, as with Dobias’ first career, the rewards will be worth it.
Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.