09/29/2014 10:10 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

How Hacking Education Has Taken Over Higher Education

Y-Combinator, the world-renowned Silicon Valley startup accelerator, recently announced its first ever college-level course on creating a successful startup at Stanford University. The course, "How to Start a Startup," exemplifies a growing trend in higher education favoring problem solving, practical knowledge, and skills development to the memorization of theory and textbooks. The rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, through hubs such as EdX and Coursera, represent a push from universities to provide skills and knowledge to the masses, without requiring the high cost of university tuition. Similarly, the rapid growth of collegiate hackathons over just the last few years and the popularity of personal websites has converted the student resume from cardstock to LED. Any student now has the capability to complete and share their ideas and projects with people all over the world.

However, the bigger shift in higher learning isn't about the way that it's delivered, but in the downstream effect it has on the way students learn how to learn. Traditionally, university classrooms are set in one of two formats: seminars of 25 students or less, or lecture halls with hundreds of students. The former has been praised for providing high-quality interactions and connections between students whereas the latter's intent is to easily delivery large quantities of information. Learning from hackathons or project-based MOOCs, however, has started to introduce students not only to a community of engaged students voluntarily taking the time to learn something new, but also to a much more diverse group of people than a standard college classroom. Exposure to different kinds of people, creative perspectives, varying world views, and distinct methods of learning not only improves brain plasticity and the ability to learn, but also helps students increase their awareness of the cultures, environments, and issues that impact areas outside of their university campus.

This trend hasn't gone unnoticed. Large companies and startups alike are rushing in hordes to sponsor university hackathons, which have become breeding grounds for talent not only because they show off technical expertise, but also display creativity, intuition, and problem solving. Luckily, this trend isn't limited to those interested in computer science. For the past ten years, the iGEM Foundation, a non-profit spun out of MIT, has been running the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which allows college students to design, build, and present projects that use the principles of synthetic biology to engineer living organisms, including an arsenic biosensor, modified E. coli that could act as a red blood cell substitute, and bacteria that can solve Sudoku puzzles. Similarly, programs like National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, have long been promoting community building and project development in writing and literature. The nature of these types of events and competitions, which self-select for students that have the intrinsic desire to learn and have a passion for the subject, improves the quality and diversity of the interactions that students have with each other compared to the conventional general education requirement.

A similar shift has emerged within graduate business schools. Historically, the MBA was set in stone as a master of "business administration" alone. Lectures, case studies, and seminars were focused on running and managing large, established companies rather than starting them from scratch, developing career capital, or learning the skills necessary for the jobs that might not exist yet. However, many programs are moving from solely analyzing case studies and writing business plans to teaching via semester-long, hands-on internships, entrepreneurship and technology innovation workshops, and interdisciplinary collaboration. In addition, up-and-coming classes on product development and management, technology entrepreneurship, and design in business schools coupled with the rise of hackathons and events like Startup Weekend are bridging the gap between business and technology. The rise of university company incubators and accelerators, which both help grow student-run companies and hold workshops featuring successful entrepreneurs across all industries, exemplifies the priority shift in many industries to value experience over GPA.

That alone is why the traditional definition of what an education entails will eventually transform from a degree on the wall to, quite frankly, a "smart person that know stuff." While software engineers and designers have the opportunity to share their work on personal websites or Github and Dribble respectively, the missing link needed to expand the changing educational landscape are web platforms, i.e. "Github for X," that cater to people in all fields to showcase their creativity. Most importantly of all, students best retain what they've learned when they can apply it, whether as a program, an article, or a piece of art, and that retention and application of knowledge is what drives the innovative thinking that drives social progress. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a project is definitely worth more than a course description.