The following essay was contributed by Lee Beaumont.
Education has a long history, extending at least as far back as the first written records recovered from ancient civilizations. Major highpoints include the invention of writing, the expansion of philosophy in the axial age, the emergence of libraries, including the library of Alexandria, schools of Hellenistic philosophy, the evolution of printing technologies, including the invention of movable type, the evolution of academic institutions beginning with the Platonic academy, continuing with the Roman academies, and various old universities still operating today such as the University of Oxford, and Harvard University. The emergence of state schools has vastly improved the literacy and numeracy of the world population.
Each of these traditional educational institutions rely primarily on lectures and other forms of information broadcast from teacher to student. Recitation, seminars, study groups, and other forms of face-to-face communication are used to varying degrees.
The evolution of the Internet now allows for many new forms of exchanging information, including educational information. Information is readily available from Wikipedia, YouTube, social media, news media, blogs, podcasts, and any number of websites. Some of this information is reliable and important factual knowledge, however much of it is unreliable, disinformation, propaganda, marketing hype, gossip, rumors, fake news, and nonsense. The burden falls on today’s students relying on this explosion of information to determine what is reliable, what is important and what is useful. Students need to know how they know and work to identify reliable sources of information and dismiss disinformation. Students need to learn how to learn in this new environment.
Education is undergoing a transformation. How might the future of education unfold?
Traditional educational institutions are now being augmented by several more accessible alternatives. These include on-line learning institutions such as Wikiversity, Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, Wondrium, and other massive open online course providers (MOOCs). Personal video conferencing allows educators to easily connect with students regardless of geographic location. New companies such as Wyzant connect tutors directly with students. The emergence of these novel alternatives poses a puzzle that must be solved. Why do these accessible alternatives struggle to attract students while students rush to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend traditional universities? What is going on?
Let’s begin by asking “What do students want?” The answer might be 1) a career (income), 2) reputation (stature), and 3) an education (the answers). How do MOOCs and other accessible forms compare to traditional academic institutions on this basis?
Few credentials are as effective in creating attractive (read high paying) employment opportunities as a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Harvard University. Such credentials are also effective in quickly conveying an esteemed reputation. Unfortunately, credentials from MOOCs are either nonexistent, undervalued, or difficult to evaluate.
Fortunately, because MOOCs and other accessible information sources provide answers, students who value learning above credentials can readily find the answers they seek. We can all readily learn from MOOCs.
Recognizing the distinction between credentials and learning can help us to shape viable and accessible learning opportunities. Motivated students can learn through MOOCs and then obtain widely recognized and valued credentials by demonstrating what they have learned to credentialing authorities. The existing Advanced Placement test structure provides an example of how this could work. In this system,
American colleges and universities may grant placement and course credit to students who obtain high scores on the examinations. This idea can be expanded to recognize what students have learned through various sources including self-study, life experiences, and MOOCs.
The future of education is learning. Let’s go!