Open Source Education

A recent post over on Facebook got me thinking. We have open source software, hardware, design, fabricating, even open source manufacturing. So, why not open source education?

Think about it. Nearly all of the world’s knowledge is available for free somewhere out there in the form of free lectures and courses, both online and off. What’s missing is some kind of credentialing system to give someone who has bothered to learn on their own the same kind of a piece of paper other people pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning.

Granted, by issues with formal, classroom education are well documented by now, but isn’t it time for all of us to accept that there are real, viable alternatives to learning in a classroom? So, who’s for it? How can we get this thing started?

An act of hypocrisy?

There is always a certain risk in taking a strong position on something. Among my strong positions has been that of questioning the value of higher education degrees and higher classroom academics in general.

Yet, lurking beneath the surface of that position has always been an element of hypocrisy that I have tended to avoid : I have accumulated well over 350 quarter hours of higher academic instruction over the past 20 years and it is very possible that I will return to a formal academic setting in the near future.

What’s worse is that this hypocrisy contains in itself another hypocrisy: I may yet return to a higher academic setting because I have access to a taxpayer-funded educational benefit I became qualified for as a result of military service that would allow me to receive this higher academic instruction for free.

Nevertheless, despite all of my rhetoric and vitriol against both things, the siren song of returning to the classroom fills my ears and my heart. The thing that holds me back is my realization that returning has the potential to undermine positions that I yet still believe to be true.

The dichotomy in this dilemma is that everything I could learn in that classroom is something I could teach myself, but if I return to the classroom, I can learn these things with very little personal cost to me except time and a little travel. Either way, I will be better than when I started, but going one way seems to be a matter of–perhaps self-defeating–principle, while going the other way seems like an act of–perhaps self-defeating–pragmatism.

At some point, I will have to make a choice, and in doing so add yet another element to my long-standing conflict about higher education. Either way, some will mock me, and perhaps, I deserve it either way.


Are we living in a post-academic world?

My aggravation with the modern education system is well-documented, but part of that aggravation is based on a legitimate question: have we entered into a post-academic era?

For a long period of history, the best and sometimes only way to learn something was to gain that knowledge from someone already considered an expert in whatever the field of pursuit might have been. Whether those people were great prophets, philosophers, teachers, master craftsmen, or professors, they represented the gateway to knowledge for the learner.

Mankind has long sought to collect all of that learning in various forms, but it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that the collection began to reach critical mass, first with the ease and speed modern publishing achieved and then with the advent of the internet and the world wide web.

The 21st century and the world wide web has ushered in a new idea in the history of learning. Granted, the accumulated knowledge of millennia of human history must sill be complied by the learned people of our own era, but subjecting ourselves to their presence and will is no longer required. For anyone motivated enough, it is possible to learn just about anything anywhere for free by simply seeking out the information and applying oneself to it.

This reality then begs the question whether the system of formal academic training currently the institutional requirement in most parts of the world is really necessary. Granted, some kind of system needs to exist, but the question remains whether it needs to look anything like the one we have now.

Modern home schooling, professional certification systems, free online education from existing academic institutions, and the maker movement give us a tantalizing glimpse of what a post-academic education system could look like. These phenomena represent a method of education targeted at the learner, utilizing far more personal interaction, allowing for mentoring and apprenticeships, and allowing for a far greater depth and breadth of exploration than most traditional academic settings.

Further, the potential post-academic model seems to encourage the same kind of sharing of information in a free and unrestricted way that allowed it to come into existence to begin with. Spend only a little time at home school, professional, or maker gatherings, and one will see an exchange of ideas and information unprecedented anywhere else.

I understand that a transformation from the current academic model to a post-academic model will have to be slow and measured, but I also think that transformation is almost inevitable. There is far too much information freely available to anyone who wants to find it to continue to justify the immense expense for rapidly diminishing results of the current academic model.

The question that remains is how each of us will pursue this post-academic transformation.


Addenum: As if they read my mind, MIT is now offering enrollment in its first automated, online course which it is offering for free.

The tension of knowledge versus credentials

Let’s face it: the major advantage of college is often not the accumulation of knowledge, which a dedicated person can accumulate on his own through personal study and experience, but the granting of credentials, which is controlled by the institutional academic system. Because of the monopoly the academic system has on credentials, people who have already accumulated knowledge have very few ways to vet themselves when it comes to what they may already know.

At one time, many people just accepted this process and went ahead and got degrees because there was no other way. Now, however, the pathway is not as simple and is far more onerous than it was before.

First, there is the problem of the cost of modern education. Granted that people with degrees make more than people without them, the cost of a paying off the debt accrued to get a degree also represents a significant drag on the finances of otherwise successful people. Many people fail to get degrees because of the financial hardship such a pursuit creates rather than because they academically incapable of finishing.

Second, there is the problem of “general education”. The academic system has determined that, in order to be well rounded, every degree candidate must accumulate dozens of hours in academic subjects that have little or anything to do with their actual academic pursuit. When coupled with cost, this phenomenon is, I believe, the predominant reason that many people fail to graduate.

Of course, the solutions to these problems are difficult and complex, but the problems themselves bring up a powerful question: should someone pursue a degree simply to have the credentials? Is the value of the credentials worth the cost of obtaining them?

I am curious what the rest of you think.