PelotonU: Powering Blended Learning

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I’m eating Italian food at Apizza Brooklyn, my favorite Miami joint, when I get a ping for a new Twitter follower, “PelotonU.” I’ve not heard of this school, and I’m curious. I do some digging.

I’m thrilled by what I find. Based in Austin, Texas, PelotonU jettisons the traditional college experience and replaces it with something entirely unique.

“We combine online education with a supportive community and dedicated mentor,” the homepage says. “We also provide each student a scholarship to make sure they graduate debt-free.”

PelotonU is a completely free, no-strings-attached program that helps students earn a college degree. To fund tuition, housing, and books, students work a job three days a week, instilling a sense of independence and responsibility.

Seven students are now enrolled, but there are plans to expand.

I love the idea of mixing online learning with a physical learning community. Students take classes through New Charter University (NCU), an accredited, competency-based program.

I’m reminded of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Third Wave of Virtual Work.” Online communication makes it unnecessary for many to travel physically to work, authors Tammy Johns and Lynda Gatton write, especially with hip urban hubs where professionals congregate instead.

I think of students huddled in a local Starbucks, sipping overpriced drinks while studying. But instead of meeting there or in classrooms, I imagine a place where young adults go to take online courses and help each other—academically and socially.

Apparently, PeltonU beat me to the punch.

I reach out to Hudson Baird, the executive director of PelotonU. Coincidentally, he’s with some students at a Starbucks in Austin when I call with him via Skype. Baird sounds youthful, energetic and optimistic—just the sort of person primed to lead this project.

Baird attended Vanderbilt, where he studied Public Policy with an emphasis on International Development. After graduating, he moved to Guatemala to start a non profit, doing community development work in a rural community.

A year later, Baird came home to work for Rex Gore, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist.

“As we delved into education, we broke it down into four commonly agreed upon problems,” Baird says. “Those were access to college, the cost of college, persistence through college, and things actually learned while in school.”

Baird says that students need to attend universities that will benefit them, but that without proper guidance, it’s difficult to know when to take standardized tests and what forms to fill-out.

“Even if you do, you need to know which colleges to pick from and how to decide that, and if no one in your family or community has been to college, that can be an awfully daunting prospect,” Baird says.

I am eager to ask Baird about his take on the ever-increasing rate of college tuition.

“Loans are hard to come by, and they’re prohibitively constrictive of your long term vocational prospects,” Baird says. “The average college student right now graduates with over 25-grand in debt. That really limits your options after you graduate.”

Reporter Susan Saulny’s Dec. 18, 2012 New York Times article, “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” supports this point:

“Across the country, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college credits or work histories, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers between the ages of 18 and 24 with the highest unemployment rate of all adults,” Saulny writes.

Baird and I also talk about online education, which, he says, has picked up a bad reputation as “diploma mills.” But we’re equally hopeful about a recent surge of online competency-based education, largely spearheaded by Western Governors University (WGU).

At WGU, founded in 1997, students have the opportunity to demonstrate that they have already acquired certain competencies, allowing them to save money by earning their degrees much more quickly.

I’m equally exciting upon reading the WGU Web site: “Whether it’s through prior experience or just plain hard work (or both), you are able to complete your degree program as soon as you can successfully complete all of the necessary assessments.”

Baird tells me that WGU goes after the 30-year-old market, and that his students would have a difficult time earning admission. He decided to have his students enroll at NCU, an offshoot that embraces similar ideals.

“It’s definitely not a perfect solution,” Baird says. “It’s got pros and cons, but our students have taken to it. It allows them to go at their own pace, academically, to slow down and get help from the school that has course specific counselors.”

I ask Baird if I could speak to one of his students, and it just so happens that Jared Roberts, a freshman, is right nearby.

Roberts was homeschooled, and before meeting Baird, he had not planned to attend college.

“If I wasn’t in Peloton right now, I’d probably be seeking a minimum-wage job at Wal Mart or something, just living with my parents,” Roberts says. “But I’ve been given the opportunity to come to Peloton and enhance my skills and learn a lot of new skills. I have a clear vision now of what I want to do, career wise, and I know who I want to help along the way.”

Roberts wants to pursue nonprofit work, just like Baird. I’m also curious about what he thinks of online learning.

“I think that online learning is teaching me a lot of discipline, because if I don’t sit down and if I don’t go to a coffee shop and get isolated, and actually do my work, there’s nobody really there to push me. It doesn’t really get done,” Roberts says.

I press Roberts on this issue, and I’m curious why he feels online learning is more difficult.

“You can’t really kiss up to the teachers, because you can only communicate through e-mail,” he says. “You have to do a really good job to get a good grade. There’s no attendance. They don’t bump your grade for anything.”

Roberts tells me that he has some friends who attend the University of Texas, where it’s easier to get good grades by simply talking to a teacher.

“But with me and my roommates and everybody in the program, that’s just not how it works,” he says.

It’s fortunate then that Roberts has Baird as a full-time mentor, who lives with him and the other students. Baird offers academic support, but he also reaches students through playing basketball, talking, and showing a deep concern for their success.

“We’re in apartments now in the east side of town,” Baird says. “The students live in two two bedroom apartments. I live in a third, right next to them. Seven days a week, morning to evening, I’m around and interacting with them on a day to day basis.”

I’m curious to hear more from Baird, who explains that PelotonU also provides students with “life skills.” Baird says that learning and education isn’t just about credentials, but also being prepared “to live on your own, to take care of a family, to think long term, to manage your finances.”

“Slowly, but surely, they don’t just have educational foundation, but they have a broader, experiential foundation, that equips them down the road,” Baird says.

Along these lines, PelotonU conducts interview training, and students receive assistance on résumés and identifying skill-sets.

For six months, Roberts worked for a commercial landscaping company. Now, he works at a golf course that offers more flexible hours.

“If you had told me that before, working part time and going to school, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but coming and participating in it, it really does give you a better sense of the real world, and what it’s really going to be like, that it’s really going to be a lot of work,” Roberts says.

I’m elated by what I learn from Baird and Roberts, but I wonder what this means for the traditional college experience. I ask Baird if he thinks the run-of-the-mill college is outdated and underperforming.

“I don’t want to say that there’s no hope for the current education model, but by and large, it doesn’t serve the broad population of students,” Baird says. I don’t want to go off and talk about education as either Princeton or MOOCs. When in reality, there are some 5,000 universities and colleges in the United States, a lot of which aren’t very good. A lot of which have well-meaning, well-deserved staff, that just aren’t well equipped to provide the kind of education needed for a 21st-century economy, where jobs are changing, where a lot of people are freelancing. We’ve got to have a malleable skill-set.”

Baird wants PelotonU to expand in Austin over the next five years, and grow a solid foundation before looking at other communities that lack education resources: “Maybe that’s down in the valley, on the border with Mexico. Maybe that’s out in East Texas, on some of the Indian reservations?”

Before we part ways, I ask Roberts if he can think of anything else I may have neglected to ask.

“Let me see, you didn’t ask me the embarrassing stories about Hudson, but we can get those covered next time,” he says.

Indeed, I hope there are many more times to come.

Interview transcript (Hudson Baird)

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Interview transcript (Jared Roberts)

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 4, 2013

    Bill smith

    Very interesting way to address the problem that many first generation college students face.

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