Photo: Dale J Stephens
Dale J Stephens wants not so much to destroy college as to render it irrelevant.He started a movement, UnCollege, to promote “self-directed higher-education” and is now launching a startup, RadMatter, to give people the tools to get everything that college is supposed to give, for free.
Given that ambition, that accolade (and this writer’s scepticism of higher education as it currently exists), we thought we’d get in touch with Stephens to learn more.
Stephens told us that UnCollege came out of a night-long discussion with a friend, while they were both in college, about how they didn’t like the disconnect between the theoretical stuff you learn in college and the real world applications. Stephens was “unschooled”, the brand of home-schooling where kids direct their own education, and realised that the tenets of unschooling could apply to higher education as well.
So he dropped out and started UnCollege to support self-directed higher education, and was later accepted as a Thiel Fellow to pursue RadMatter, his startup.
What’s RadMatter going to do? “Help people develop and demonstrate talent.”
RadMatter doesn’t want to tackle the education function of college so much as (arguably) its biggest function: signaling. Signaling means that what employers are interested in isn’t what you learned at Yale, but that you were smart enough to get into Yale.
On RadMatter, people will be able to “categorize their experiences based on talents, not skills,” Stephens tells us. Talents are broader than skills. So for example, Stephens says, both “I know [the programming language] Python” and “I organised a wedding for a thousand people”, which are skills, can fit into the talent “solving puzzles.” Examples of other talents could be “seeing possibilities” or “empowering people.”
So anyone will be able to create a profile with what they’ve done and have it socially validated by the community. As on Couchsurfing.com, where only people who have certain badges can award it to others, “people can only endorse others if they have that same talent.”
There will be many problems to figure out. “Talents” are a vague thing, and certification can pose problems. It’s easy enough to prove you know Python, but how do you prove on a website that you organised a wedding? “You have to articulate it in a way that’s convincing” to get it validated, Stephens says, and anyway plenty of people lie on their resume and no system is perfect. Which is fair enough, but we see devils in those details.
For marketing and getting traction, Stephens notes that he is invited to speak at colleges and other venues all the time. He is planning a tour of colleges and universities next Spring to get people to consider the opportunity cost of college, and he is in talks with companies for them to use this for their own people. “I’m young and people like listening to people their own age,” he says.
The business model is pretty obvious: if and when RadMatter gets traction, it can be an amazing recruiting tool, which companies are always willing to pay for. Stephens tells us he is “already in talks with major corporations” who want to hire through his platform, for “all types of jobs”, from blue-collar to executive.
Stephens wants to have a rough product in closed alpha in two months, and have a release by the end of the year.
The verdict? RadMatter’s plan seems fuzzy in some areas, but then again for a pre-launch product with such an ambitious vision, there should be some fuzzy edges. In this era of dozens of mobile photo-sharing apps, an entrepreneur going after a very large and important problem should be applauded.
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