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This North Carolina Campus Was Meant to Show Off the Future of Online Education

It hasn't gone according to plan

I made it to campus just in time for the workshop. My hosts were still trying to decide whether to hold it. It was 9:30 a.m., and only five students populated the circle of seats in the classroom. “We were just thinking that the afternoon was going to be a better time for more people,” one staff member, Steve Cooperman, told another in a low voice.

“Did you want to move it to this afternoon?” she asked.

“Well, this afternoon is no good.”

“Well, Thursday we have a ‘Find Your Passion’ workshop…”

Settled: They would do it now, as planned. But first they had to decide whether to go around the room, or split into smaller groups. “What do you think?” Cooperman asked me. “You’re part of the community now. You have a say.” 

The community I had joined—if only for a couple of days—was Black Mountain SOLE, a start-up that combines a traditional campus experience with the latest innovation in American education: MOOCs, or massive open online courses. The school plunks the usually solitary task of online learning down in an approximation of a college community. It crowns a hilltop outside the hippie enclave of Asheville, North Carolina, and launched this fall with about $400,000 in its coffers.

Though the morning’s groggy attendees looked like college students, the workshop felt more like a self-empowerment class. In the exercise, “Blueprint of ME,” each person lays out “who are you, what’s important to you, how are you on your best day and your worst day,” said Cooperman.

Black Mountain attracts a hodgepodge of Merrell-wearing commune veterans and aspiring Silicon Valley transplants. The language of the Blueprints borrowed from both: a trip to the bathroom was a “bio break,” but “to execute on” was a ubiquitous compound verb. The classroom walls were lined with scribbled brainstorming webs and statements of purpose on easel sheets. “THE FOUR PRINCIPLES,” said one, in blue and green marker. “Whoever comes are the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it’s over, it’s over.”

At the bottom, it proclaimed “THE ONE LAW,” which is “The Law of Two Feet”: The school’s “SOLEmates”—its term for students—can attend what they choose and leave when they please.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE

Per the Law, the nearly two-hour Blueprint was conducted by a rotating cast that topped out at nine. Those who shared didn’t hold back—one woman disclosed her susceptibility to Urinary Tract Infections—and the listeners probed every revelation. After one SOLEmate described how she feels on a bad day, another asked her for “warning signs.” Does she get quiet? Do her nostrils flare?

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs. “If you want to study what you want to study, MOOCs are a great way to do that,” Katie Cleary, a staff member, told me. “But if you want to get the full experience of developing yourself, then you can come here and do that, too.”

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
An ad for Black Mountain posted last March.

But like most experiences of developing yourself, this one is off to a bumpy start. And, typically, the struggles seem a lot more like those of a tech start-up than those of a beleaguered university.

Since launching in September, Black Mountain has watched much of its seed money drain away as it struggles to build a seaworthy business model. Though many of the tech- and business-minded SOLEmates have flourished, creative types and liberal arts-seekers have foundered. The number of participants is growing, but at least half of the original class seems likely to leave before finishing their intended nine-month stay. Black Mountain was founded on the premise that college’s last remaining selling point, in this digital age, is community—so it set out to replicate the effect. The last four months have gone a long way toward proving the theory wrong.

Black Mountain opened its doors on September 9. Of the four full-time staff members, only Cooperman, a 56-year-old business consultant-turned-alternative education guru, is over 30.

One of the program’s big talking points is what Andra Adams, another staff member, calls the “inflated value” of a college degree—in terms of both actual learning, and professional payoff. Adams, 25, is in Black Mountain on leave from an unsatisfying PhD in Computer Science as a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge. “I was all the way up there at the best university in the world, and honestly, it was a politics game,” she said.

Black Mountain does not bill itself as a substitute for college; SOLEmates come for what Dave Dobias, the 27-year-old executive director who founded the organization last November, calls a “gap year.” Others come for even shorter stints of “incubating businesses or self-directed learning.” Dobias allows that college is the right fit for some, but his start-up’s rhetoric assails education’s orthodoxies. Many of the SOLEmates had dropped out of traditional colleges—often after transferring a handful of times and racking up tens of thousands in loans. Where college is expensive, Black Mountain is designed to be “at cost,” meaning the $1,167 per month program fees do no more than cover room; board; operating expenses; and the staff’s stipends, which Dobias said are in the ballpark of $500 a month.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
Dobias snaps a picture of the staff meeting in Heaton Hall. 

And where college hands you a piece of paper when you graduate, Black Mountain has no intention of becoming accredited. It’s focused on “the value that [the SOLEmates] generate, not the value that a degree says they generate,” Dobias said. Everything is horizontal.

“You’re looking at a group of people who are probably some of the most jaded, aware young people in the history of time,” said Chris Hanna, a consultant in Virginia who mentors two SOLEmates with business aspirations and helps handle the project’s finances. Black Mountain’s demographic is the one most shaped by the crisis of 2008. “You have an entire house payment on your education, and you’re forced to be a wage slave for some company that treats you like shit… The thing that can’t pivot as fast as that paradigm has pivoted is the education system. People don’t need a guy who’s a hack lecturing about one thing for five hours—it’s a waste of time.”

Down with hackery, up with “learning by doing”—a philosophy that Dobias, who curses fluently but otherwise shares the bright manner of a children’s show host, wears naturally.

An Air Force brat, Dobias jokes that his elementary school teachers wanted him medicated for ADHD. For the first two decades of his life, he had no doubt that he would join the military when the time came. But his sophomore year at the Air Force Academy, Dobias had a seizure that disqualified him from service. “I sort of lost my identity,” he says. The seizure led to brain surgery; Dobias showed me the scar on his scalp, under his light brown hair. For a while, he tried working as a helicopter rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard and taking classes from Columbia Southern University online, working toward his unfinished degree. On a whim, he read The 4-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss’s best-selling self-help book on how to “escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich.” He decided to become an entrepreneur.

Dobias flew planes and raced in triathlons in his free time, which is how he met his mentor, a venture capitalist named Mark Hunter. Dobias scored a job at KLH Capital, the firm Hunter had co-founded at age 23. Hunter, alas, left the firm to train for life as a monk. Before Hunter moved to India, Dobias visited him on weekends in Florida, where they’d stay up past midnight watching TED Talks in their pajamas. They were huddled in front of a computer in the wee hours of the morning when lightning struck. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta do this,’” Dobias recalled. They didn’t quite shake on it—Dobias says the project “started with a pound.” Months later, they decided to dub their project a “SOLE,” or Self-Organized Learning Environment, inspired by another talk: Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra’s, which won TED’s 2013 prize for best idea.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
Notes from a brainstorming session at Black Mountain. 

Hunter abandoned their messianic calling for a monastery in Calcutta, but not before setting up a 501c3 through which Dobias raised $350,000 from a venture capital donor. With it, he rented a dorm and a classroom building at the Blue Ridge Assembly, a century-old property near Asheville belonging to the YMCA. The oldest buildings are stately, antebellum-style halls with trunk-like pillars, gleaming white against the verdant hills. Dobias didn’t learn until after signing the agreement that the site once played host to the equally experimental Black Mountain College, home of such avant-garde artists as Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Creeley from 1933 through 1957. He says he was tickled by the “synchronicity.”

Black Mountain’s staff sells the institution with this basic argument: The job market is suffused with dime-a-dozen college degrees. Developing a mentorship or launching a start-up, by contrast, is how you distinguish yourself.

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
Dave Dobias in Heaton Hall.

And then there are students like Ciara Kosior, whom I ran into at the Blueprint on my first morning at Black Mountain. She wore a long skirt sponge-painted with flowers and vines, a kimono that fell to the backs of her knees, and mismatched earrings—a moonstone dangling from one ear, and a bright-yellow horsehair assemblage from the other. She let out a nervous laugh when she admitted that she had only completed the first two sections of the exercise, and she kept pausing, scanning the page and muttering, “blah, blah, blah,” as if she was skipping over things she’d written. I didn't recognize her, but she recognized me: We had both grown up in Northampton, Massachusetts, though I hadn’t seen her since we were kids.

Kosior graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010 with a degree in jewelry and metalsmithing. A year ago, she was living in Brooklyn, designing jewelry for Jessica Simpson’s new line. “I was good at it,” she said. But the soulless glamour of New York fashion left her cold. Hurricane Sandy was the turning point: After putting on her chicest clothes and commuting into Manhattan while people she knew joined Occupy Sandy, she quit her job in February “with no plan.” She heard about Black Mountain when she was living in Fairfield, Iowa, working on an organic farm and making art at a local coworking space. In North Carolina, she was hoping to abandon jewelry for a more omnivorous course of study. “We’ve basically got a problem in this society of having all the resources and all the tools and all the smart people we could possibly need to solve all the world’s problems, but they’re not in the right places or the connections aren’t getting made,” she said, summarizing a conversation with another SOLEmate. “And now I’m like, wow, this is the kind of stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot, but didn’t know you could study or discuss with other people.”

But a few weeks into September, she told Dobias that she felt adrift. Most SOLEmates showed up with a project: a plan to become a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine, for example, or the entrepreneurial inspiration to sell miniature houses, or create a barter version of Craigslist. Kosior didn’t have one. Dobias told her to nourish her strengths. “You’re an idea maker,” he pronounced. He suggested her project could be “networking,” finding the right mentors to advance her work. That amounted to hitching a ride into Asheville and walking around the River Arts District in search of pieces that caught her eye.

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
SOLEmate Asa Dean writes his "All About Me."

Asking artistically-inclined SOLEmates like Kosior to find their own mentors and lead their own workshops jives with the motto of “do it yourself learning.” But education-seekers like Kosior are swimming against the techie tide. The most collegiate offering I found was an “academic support group,” led by Byrne. At the beginning, she envisioned it as a daily meeting rotating between literature, theoretical math, science, and languages (she was trying to teach herself Portuguese; another SOLEmate had suggested the group learn Na’vi, the made-up tongue from the James Cameron movie Avatar). She assigned “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace for a discussion on “man versus self in literature.” By early December, though, the seminar had morphed into an entrepreneurial support group, whose members helped out with one another’s business projects and read up on passive income and copywriting.

Most of the people I interviewed at Black Mountain SOLE said they wake up early. Some practice ashtanga yoga together at 6:00 a.m. They go to breakfast. At the beginning of the term, there was an optional morning check-in each day at 9:00, which involved going around the circle and sharing: “I am grateful for… My intention for the day is… My request to the community today is…” After that, the entrepreneurs who came with projects would get in front of their laptops and buckle down. Hanna said it may be intimidating to the others, to “see the entrepreneurs working very feverishly, running around, constantly doing meetings,” but he added, “it’s the nature of the beast.”

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE

This structure might work for those who arrived with a plausible idea: Chris Coleman, who had come up with his Craigslist spinoff SavySwap in 2012, won seed funding two months after coming to Black Mountain, and left for Philadelphia; Dobias called him “our first major case study.” If so, it was a case-study that arrived and left without taking a single MOOC. “A lot of folks are going to be looking for something very specific that might be in a MOOC, but the whole MOOC itself is probably overkill,” Dobias said. “From that perspective, what is a MOOC? A YouTube video that teaches you how to make a bottle rocket, or whatever—that’s a MOOC! It’s just a really short one. It’s really simple, and at the end of it you get the desired result.”

Despite its members' praise for the business mentality, Black Mountain took a quixotic approach to its first round of admissions. Of the 20 SOLEmates who arrived in early September, Dobias told me eight were fully supported by the “Pay It Forward” fund—a pool of a little over $50,000 for SOLEmates who couldn’t muster tuition. Four more paid reduced program fees. The staff handed out scholarships because they needed enough bodies to provide “proof of concept,” as Dobias calls it. But it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 a month to run Black Mountain SOLE, according to Dobias’s estimate—and only about $7,000 per month was coming in from tuition.

Black Mountain’s model echoes many of the debates happening in top policy circles today. MOOCs hit the scene in 2011, when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun put his artificial intelligence course online; he founded his for-profit platform Udacity in 2012, and the technology quickly became a great white hope in a culture desperate to control the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Three years later, Udacity has been joined by Coursera, which has so far enrolled over five million students, and edX, which has attracted another 1.5 million. President Obama in August touted the courses’ cost-saving potential. “A lot of other schools are experimenting with these ideas to keep tuition down,” he said. “The point is, it’s possible. And it’s time for more colleges to step up with even better ways to do it.”

If Obama has his druthers, universities may soon be sharing a lot more of their content—and projecting more lessons out of a computer screen. And the middle tier of American schools may start to look like Black Mountain SOLE, selling themselves on the social trappings to the degree instead of what’s become a generic curriculum.

The problem is, it seems people aren’t wired to learn online. Nationwide, the completion rate for MOOCs is under seven percent—a new study from the University of Pennsylvania put it as low as four. These statistics led Thrun to say recently: “We don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.” So far, when universities offer MOOCs for credit, the completion rates go up but the pass rates stay low; San Jose State University suspended a high-profile experiment this summer when it found that between 29 and 51 percent of students had scraped above an F in the three MOOCs it tracked, as compared to about three-quarters of students who passed the same courses in-person.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
The main drive of the Blue Ridge Assembly.

With MOOCs proving less than compelling, Black Mountain has tried to accommodate its more artistic and academic residents in other ways. The morning check-in favored the entrepreneurs’ early schedule, so it became a twice-weekly meeting in the afternoon instead. A few SOLEmates converted a classroom into a makeshift art studio, with couches for jamming on guitar and drawers stuffed full of paints, wire, clay, and other supplies.

The rift “has come up in discussions,” Kosior told me in November. “There’d been a sense that [Black Mountain] was more focused on helping the entrepreneurial, business side of things, that it wasn’t very considerate of any other kind of passionate dialogue or interest. Sometimes it seemed like it was being taken seriously, and sometimes it was like, ‘Wait, we’re giving you everything, why aren’t you happy?’”

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
Black Mountain's inaugural class sits on the steps of Robert E. Lee Hall.

The program is a better fit for SOLEmates like Zack Jones, who has been using his days to found a company that will sell miniature houses. Jones thinks entrepreneurs thrive here because the school itself is a start-up, a perfect case study in the lessons they came to learn. “There’s such a tight-knit community, we kind of feel responsible for each other,” he said. “I know for a handful of us, we kind of feel responsible for the SOLE as well, like it’s our obligation to do what we said we were going to do, because if we don’t, that disproves the process and says it doesn’t work.”

Dobias says he has already received over 100 applications for next fall. Between a handful of Asheville coworkers who are paying to use Black Mountain as their base of operations, and a few new residential SOLEmates, the school’s numbers have swelled to about 25. Five more are slated to arrive in January—but at least as many of the current group say they will have left by then. In September, the SOLEmates on scholarships seemed unclear about how much money they had been promised, but confident that if they wanted to stay a whole year, Black Mountain would find a way. But in October, the group decided that—excepting a few SOLEmates who had been explicitly promised a full year’s funding—Pay It Forward dependants would be limited to three months.

Dobias said this was resolved at a community meeting, but SOLEmates described it as the leadership’s call; Kosior found out about the change when Hanna knocked on her bedroom door to deliver one month’s notice. When I followed up with a few SOLEmates whose funding was scheduled to cut off this winter, two had already left North Carolina, and the other two had no intention of coming up with the money to stay.

Courtesy of Black Mountain SOLE
Andra Adams's "All About Me."

“The financial burden of the faculty has sort of almost been passed on to the students,” said one former SOLEmate, describing the group’s involvement in a crowdfunding campaign meant to replenish the Pay It Forward fund. “‘You’re our crowdfunders! Hey, we need to teach you how to advertise, you’re our marketing team!’ It’s a little weird, and that’s why I was planning on leaving, too.”

In an effort to lower costs—and satisfy SOLEmates who had complained that they were promised organic meals and a garden on-site—the staff opted the program out of the YMCA’s full-service dining hall. Dobias told the SOLEmates that two-thirds of the school’s expenses had been sunk into the dining hall service, and that now he could drop the tuition to between $700 and $800 a month. But the math didn’t work: The YMCA had discounted their housing in exchange for using the dining hall, and factoring in the organic groceries, the total savings would be modest. Tuition stayed flat.

In the start-ups imagined by so many of Black Mountain’s students, this is the sort of trajectory that would worry the investors mightily.

Well, ho ho ho, this has been an interesting experience,” Kosior said when I called in late November. She told me she had been rock climbing, learning to tango, and taking lessons in aerial silk acrobatics. She had spent two weeks crashing at a friend’s apartment in Asheville, to escape Black Mountain’s entrepreneurial mood for a more creative milieu. She was considering applying for a master’s degree, maybe in design, maybe in Sweden, because school is inexpensive there and people speak English. By mid-December, she was back in New York City—she had no interest in staying at Black Mountain if the program wasn’t free.

“The conversation prior to arriving here had been that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing, we’ll help you figure it out,” she said. “I’m not a disciplined person, so getting things done in this environment is very difficult for me.”

Byrne, too, has turned her ambitions elsewhere. She appears as committed to the doctrine of do-it-yourself learning as anyone in North Carolina—her parents kicked her out when she refused to go to college; her latest plan is to win a Thiel Fellowship, an award named for PayPal founder Peter Thiel that encourages teenagers to start businesses instead of going to school. “The structure of the program isn’t what I thought it would be,” she told me in December. When I asked how she would change the SOLE, she said, “I think I probably would have brought in more leaders. I would probably bring in teachers, like traveling teachers, instead of relying on SOLEmates to do that.”

Real education may not be compatible with what Dobias considers Black Mountain’s revolutionary potential. “This is really about empowering people to understand that you don’t have to be a professor or some industry expert to facilitate some amazing growth,” he told me. “Just asking the question and letting people step into some authority around their opportunities, some magic happens.”