Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Higher Education Goes Open Source in America

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate.

If you’ve spent more than two straight decades in some form of educational system then there is only one word to describe your relationship with education: ambivalent. On the one hand, the complete dominance of your time, constant stress to perform, and general shenanigans that accompany it begin to wear you out. On the other, there is something truly magnificent about the process of discovery. Upon my graduation, there has, admittedly, been a pull to go back to school. I imagine this is akin to what a prisoner serving a lengthy sentence might feel when they finally get parole: your new found freedom becomes laced with a sort of hesitancy because you know nothing else. Thankfully, there is a new option for the recovering student.

Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are currently offering online courses. So, why am I writing about two schools that obviously have the technical capability of offering instructional courses over the internet? It’s quite simple: the courses are free. That is, I get the pleasure of being in school without two critical factors: student debt and stress. The former is quite important, as my colleague, Jonathan Miller, described in his recent blog Degrees of Snobbery: ballooning tuition, rising student debt and stagnant median income is creating pressure on higher education to offer degrees at a reduced cost. While Stanford and MIT’s foray into open source education is more guided by their mission to impact global society rather than reduce higher education’s cost, their actions open the gates to what is possible to provide students at no or low cost.

After spending a few weeks going over the features of both institutions’ online offerings, I can only describe it as impressive. The variety of features, replication of social learning, and testing capability far outweighs my initial preconceptions in regards to the limitations of online learning –said preconceptions were regrettably colored after making a student loan payment. Stanford and that other tech school, have come as close as an institution could get in balancing the social atmosphere, learning environment, and one-on-one instruction that one obtains during their postsecondary education. And spending a few days watching course lectures, doing a few homework problems, and reading text books (also offered for free or at low cost), I now understand why, during focus group sessions, every higher education stakeholder voiced deep-seeded concerns about top tier universities offering free online instruction.

With Stanford and MIT’s entrance into territory generally reserved for local community colleges and universities, combined with their multi-billion dollar endowments, it is quite likely that local community colleges and universities will be force to adapt. It may soon be the role of these vital institutions not to teach basic knowledge (the theory and concepts of how a circuit works, for example), but focus on applied “sticky” knowledge that is deeply tied to place. Instead of teaching introductory coursework (now provided online at no cost), local community colleges and universities must further leverage their ties to local business communities and help students better connect their basic knowledge to real-world applications. Such a connection may involve a business which presents a problem currently faced by the organization, creating a duel team of students and employees to approach the problem either cooperatively or redundantly. For now, educators can rest easy: students are unable to obtain a Stanford or MIT degree upon competition of online coursework. For now.