Human knowledge belongs to the world

In the movie Antitrust, the main character, a programmer named Milo, battles against the CEO of an enormous software company who is bent on world domination and is not afraid to employ brutal tactics to steal code that he needs to accomplish this goal. In the end, Milo finally defeats his plan by releasing all the code online, making it freely available, and therefore no longer able to be exploited by any single entity. To underscore this act, he tags on to this release the simple statement ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world.’ With the growing size and spread of the internet, this idea of cheap and easily accessible information has spread to many different realms, one very important one being education. Last night I had the opportunity to go to a panel discussion about online learning opportunities (like MOOCs – massively open online courses) and how they might change the face of education.

The panel’s main speaker was Anya Kamenetz, author of the books ‘Generation Debt’ and ‘DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education’ (as well as a free guide to DIY online education available here: Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential). She had some interesting things to say about education.

In the US, there is a dichotomy that has arisen between the fact that information is free and available (via the internet) and the fact that higher education definitely isn’t. The cost of the University of Wisconsin can range from $6000 per semester for an in-state resident to more $13000 for a nonresident, and for somewhere like Harvard it rockets up to $30000-$40000 . This is a problem in a country that prides itself on being democratic and egalitarian, since there are many people who just can’t afford those fees. As Kamenetz put it, ‘college is no longer the engine for social mobility.’

So what are the alternatives? There are a few big players in online education: edX, Coursera, Khan Academy, P2PU. There are other types of education resources as well, different from coursework: Enstitute (where students apprentice with a start-up company), LearningCounts (where people can get course credit for material they already know), or online platforms where users can build portfolios of their work that potential employers might see, doing away with the need for a degree in the first place (like GitHub for programmers or Behance for creative types).

One question that came up last night was: what role will educators play in this scheme? While the answer to that isn’t entirely clear (mostly we’ll have to wait and see how things develop) it’s clear that there is still a need in this system for tutors, mentors, and guides. For one thing, people crave personal interactions, and a lot of good discussions and connections can come out of meeting face to face with someone that can’t occur in a large impersonal system. Additionally, the fact that there is so much information, from the online courses mentioned above to encyclopedias such as Wikipedia to simple information searches through Google, means that it can be overwhelming for a student who doesn’t know where to start or even what their goals might be. In this case, a teacher acts as a guide, to point the way and warn against potential pitfalls.

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