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Innovation in Open-Sourcing Humanitarian Education

Innovation in Open-Sourcing Humanitarian Education
Chris E. Stout, PsyD, Psychologist | Adventurer | (Accidental) Humanitarian

With the Covid-19 pandemic, education leaders in the United States and world-wide, have had to deal with the quite daunting challenge of offering a learn-from-home parallel to the work-from-home situation many employees find themselves dealing with. I will not be discussing the additional challenges of parents needing to help their elementary, junior or senior high schoolers at home, or the problem of students not having access to computers or internet connections, but rather higher education’s approach to online, virtual methods.



I have written elsewhere on my experiences in the online and in-person styles of instruction:

“As a former medical and graduate school professor who has taught in traditional and online venues, I favor the former. Not because I am a luddite, but honestly the connection with students was a different and lesser experience for me online. I believe MOOCs and the like have their place, and I am a big fan of webinars and the ability for students to re-watch a lecture, but we still need to do more to not become depersonalized in our virtual classrooms. I’m on the fence with the quality of education question vis-à-vis format of instruction. I watched a comedy recently in which fun was being poked at an online-only “university” so I’m guessing there is a continuing shadow of stigma cast on online only programs. The final issue I struggle with is tuition cost. I’m a big fan of research universities and seeking grants and foundation funding for work and research to help keep the lights on (as well as wonderful opportunities to teach by doing and add to knowledge) and not having the burden of tuition be a long term and crushing debt to service for graduates, or worse, for those who must leave a program without completion.”

Now, I’m not as convinced. And I’d like to think out loud with you as to my findings, thoughts, and an experiment. 

Issues with the Old-School Approach

2020 study by McKinsey reminds us that “The core mission of colleges and universities is instruction, research, and service. In recent decades, though, many have engaged in the so-called student-amenities arms race, with expansive offerings in areas such as entertainment, gourmet dining, and wellness. Higher-education institutions want to deliver an enjoyable experience, and of course some student services are essential, especially those related to physical and mental health. But it is notable that since at least 2010, the costs for student services have risen much faster than costs for instruction and research. While this spending does include some core services, this trend may no longer be sustainable for many institutions.” The adaptations during Covid-19 have shuttered many of these amenities, along with sports and events.

The McKinsey researchers callout some of the long-held beliefs that optimal educational outcomes are the result of being educated, in person, on a residential campus. Furthermore, they opine that such traditional institutions have been “…slow to adopt new methods and technologies, such as remote instruction and competency-based learning that have the potential to advance student success while also lowering costs…(and) the COVID-19 crisis hustled even reluctant students and institutions into action. In 2018, only about 35 percent of undergraduates took a distance-education course. This year, that figure is close to 100 percent, as the pandemic forced the adoption of remote learning.”


As referenced in my above note, I recently streamed a movie that was 10 years old, and in it there was a joke made about of one of the character’s expertise being based on his University of Phoenix degree. I think we all get the joke, but perhaps 10 years on, it’s less funny as we now have many well-known, respected, long-standing colleges and universities offering courses online. Pre-Covid-19 we had the advent of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, also born from traditional institutions, many of which bearing ivy—Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Brown— as well as high profile companies like Microsoft.

The McKinsey study  also noted “Institutional acceptance of the online delivery model also may be increasing. According to a poll of 2,000 US faculty members by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup in October 2019 —that is, well before the COVID-19 crisis—39 percent fully supported the increased use of education technologies, up from 29 percent in 2017. And a national survey of more than 4,000 faculty members earlier this year found that 45 percent had a better opinion of remote learning since the pandemic began; fewer than one in five (17 percent) had a more negative perception.”

Similarly, in an interview in Fast Company on EdTech, Chip Paucekcofounder and CEO of 2U, an EdTech company that partners with colleges and universities to develop and operate online degree programs, said “We found, even well before COVID, that the negative connotations around online education were rapidly dwindling. Students are now proud to talk about it, and it’s pretty clear [from our surveys] that employers see it as a positive when people continue to add online [credentials] to their résumé. I’m sure COVID will only accelerate that… The huge market is actually adult learners, who have typically been served by the for-profit [universities].”


There traditionally has been a bit of prestige that comes along with acceptance into a program that is renown to be selective and difficult to gain admission. This begets high competition from top students, and not everyone gets in their top choice, but they likely may land in a good spot nevertheless.

I had Scott Young on my podcast recently and talked about taking most all of the computer science bachelor’s degree courses that MIT offers online, which he completed it in a year. This approach to “getting into MIT” was very creative (as well as a self-imposed additional challenge of cramming four years into one, but hey, that’s Scott for you) and while it yielded him the tools and education, he was attempting to learn in computer science, it did not concomitantly provide him with a credential, like a degree or certification however.

                                              This is an interesting dilemma.

It reminds me of someone being able to sit for the Bar Exam in a state that allows such without first having a law degree, and if one passes, even sans a degree, a pass is a pass, and BINGO, welcome to now being an attorney. I suspect in the “Next Normal” we may be seeing variations and expansions on this “skills but no (or a non-traditional) credential” phenomena.

I do not have a clear understanding of acceptance rates for online degrees or training other than a few examples. Of those I am knowledgeable about, there is a 100% acceptance rate into their degree programs. Who knows how this may spread as many colleges are, at least for now, not requiring qualifying entrance exams due to Covid-19 related concerns? The flipside of the coin of getting in, is completing one’s training and successfully graduating. Schools keep these statistics, so it’s a good idea for potential students considering any program to do their due diligence and learn how many get in, how many properly get out, and what does is the total cost?

In my prior point concerning admission into a high-caliber, selective college or university, there is likely a sizable price-tag that comes along with the welcome packet. It’s more recognized today that not everyone can make it to the finish-line from that good coveted starting place. Sometimes it’s personal issues or with wanting to change a major, but perhaps more often it is due to tuition costs. The result can be a graduation that comes with great indebtedness, or worse, the evil doppelganger of indebtedness but no degree.

 It’s not always a case of

you get what you pay for.

Many MOOC offerings use a “freemium” model in which a course can be taken at a low or no-cost level, for the pure sake of learning. Others may have a fee if a certificate or some other vetted performance aspect is associated with completing the work (e.g., tests, quizzes, papers, work products, etc.). Fair enough.

But what perplexes me is that online courses are often just as expensive as the school’s brick-and-mortar venue. Take for example, one PhD program that offers a rigorous program that is identical online and in-person, but the tuition and fees are also identical at $1492/credit for 63 credits = $93,996.

And remember Scott Young completed almost all of the computer science bachelor’s degree courses that MIT offers online at zero-tuition. And, I’d argue that he could likely hold his own with an on-campus graduate of the program. 

As our McKinsey fiends pointed out in their paper, the “business model” of universities is generally making ends meet via raising tuition costs. And I, for one think that’s a pretty unsustainable business model. They note:

  • “For decades, the financial model of US colleges and universities rested on two revenue streams. Student tuition and fees were the most important; the rest came from a mix of different sources, such as athletics, research grants, endowments, and government appropriations, that varied greatly. Both revenue streams are now under stress. These unprecedented times require a reimagined business model that protects the core educational mission and financial viability of the institution, while limiting economic burdens on students… there are also questions around the value of higher education when debt levels and repayment rates are considered. Median student debt levels have climbed by 45 percent since 2006, while repayment rates have dropped by 24 percent since 2009. The situation appears to be worsening; in 2016, only 6 percent of students were at colleges where students left with moderate debt and managed high repayment rates, compared with 54 percent in 2009. The situation is even worse for students who incur debt but don’t graduate and, therefore, don’t benefit from the income-raising advantage of a degree.”

Hybrid: Open-Sourcing and Free Access

As I opened in this post, many schools attempted to simply transpose traditional in-person classroom teaching to online. That is not really a “digital transformation” as it were. And for many institutions, it was a fiasco.

Thus, having learned from all the preceding observations, research, and personal experiences, I am developing an experiment through the non-profit Center I founded to develop a best-of-breed model that attempts mimic what works online and use traditional methods of mentorship often lacking in an online-exclusive approach. Much of the fabric of true academia lies in the interaction between a student and a professor or mentor that fosters a deeper understanding and supports curiosity and intellectual challenge via a trusted and safe relationship.

The Center for Global Initiatives started by working with partners across the globe. We soon found out that with an all-volunteer organization that was not scalable. So, we then “pivoted” and developed an approach we referred to as “Opensource Humanitarian Intervention,” in that we freely provide tools and resources to help others with their work in the humanitarian space. We work to reduce the friction and hassles often associated in the process of helping and working with others. Somewhat of a teach-a-person-to-fish ethos.

Now, we have taken this opensource approach and applied it to providing instruction and learning, that is, all the materials that are used in our Certificate Programs are free–all the time, to anyone, everywhere. All tuition goes to fund the work of the Center and its projects. No Core faculty are paid, including the Program Chair, and our programs are completely pandemic-proof.

Here’s how it got its start:

What we have done is source and curate materials—articles, chapters, videos, talks, lectures, webinars, podcasts, books, websites, apps, and any other helpful media—into a syllabus, and that syllabus is part of a structured curriculum that when successfully completed will yield a Certification in the area of specialization from the Center. Students receive specific feedback and critique on each component of their submitted coursework for grading. Once there is a successful completion of the course, the student receives a transcript that may be submitted to one’s program or university if need be as confirmation of the student’s successful completion. The expectation, however, is that most students participating in the Certificate Program will be post-graduate or post-doctoral students, and the Certification is an additional credential to apply the learning in their work and to be able to list on their resume, bio, and/or CV.

The Fellows Program offers two tracks. One is focused on career development or advancement in the area of humanitarian intervention and is a structured, intensive, hands-on mentorship experience. The other is focused on the Fellow learning how to build a non-for-profit or nongovernmental organization.

The Center has developed an education and research Consortium of top Universities, Medical Schools, and International NGOs. We have built a world class faculty and contractual agreements in order to provide the tools, network/contacts, and support for Center Scholars.

The words of Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University, spoken over 150 years ago continue to be poignant advice to us all:

“The inertia of a massive university is formidable. A good past is positively dangerous if it makes us content with the present, and so unprepared for the future.”

We believe our experiment in education will gain momentum and overcome the inertia that other approaches are hobbled by, and to thus help others make a difference in the world and advance their knowledge and their careers. 

Dr. Chris Stout

Dr. Chris Stout

Dr. Stout’s career includes business, government, and nonprofits, as well as the UN and academia. He’s traveled the world, published 38 books, won a wide range of accolades, including four additional doctorates (honoris causa), and invitations to TEDs, Davos, Renaissance Weekends…

He’s is a licensed clinical psychologist and Founding Director of the Center for Global Initiatives, a Top Rated Healthcare Nonprofit. His entrepreneurial experience is demonstrated in multiple start-ups and serving as an advisory board member, and early-money-in investor. He's been faculty in the University of Illinois' College of Medicine and Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. He served at the UN and was appointed to the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders of Tomorrow and an Invited Faculty at Davos. He is the founder of GordianKnot, LLC, and is Emeritus VP of Clinical Research and Data Analytics at ATI.