Too Cool For School

I can't help but feel sorry for American college students. Many of these kids have mortgaged away their future by way of student loans that they may never be able to repay. But do they have any other choice? People will pay whatever it takes for the best education possible. And unsurprisingly, data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that a 4-year degree isn't getting any cheaper:

Education costs

But perhaps it will get cheaper. For example, University of the People last week became the first tuition-free online university to earn accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council. Students still pay a $50 application fee and a $100 exam processing fee for each course they take. But for those who are interested in studying this school's particular brand of computer science or business administration, it's considerably less expensive than attending a brick and mortar institution.

Sadly, even after scholarships to help offset its seemingly minimal costs, University of the People remains prohibitively expensive for much of the world's population. Not everyone can afford an Internet connection. And time spent studying is time spent neither earning money through a job nor harvesting crops to feed your family. So how can we make education accessible and affordable to every person young and old? Further, how do we make that education worthwhile?

Even in America, where we provide free public school for every child through the age of 18, education is failing. Human beings are natural learners. We are born with innate curiosity about the world around us. We have a drive to reach beyond the familiar and each person's unique curiosity naturally leads down a different path. Yet students and teachers alike are becoming more and more disengaged from the learning process. What happened?

There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.
— Paul Lockhart A Mathematician's Lament

Can it be that by standardizing education, we have removed its soul? What is that soul? What is the driving force behind education? Is our goal to prepare ourselves for jobs that may or may not still exist by the time we're done with school? Or is it to enrich ourselves through exploration, discovery, and innovation? How useful is the view that education is a means to some end?

Education scientist Sugata Mitra is promoting what he calls self-organized learning environments. In 1999 he decided to see what would happen if he gave a computer to children in a slum in New Delhi who otherwise would never have had access to one. And they thrived. Through this, and a series of other experiments, Mitra demonstrated that when you challenge students and you provide them access to information, learning will happen on its own terms. Teachers can become facilitators who guide students while leaving them in the driver's seat.

In 2006, Salman Khan, the creator of Khan Academy, was a financial analyst at a hedge fund in Boston when he posted a series of instructional YouTube videos for the purpose of tutoring his younger cousins. Those videos went viral and the rest is history. Salman Khan is reinventing education. Today, educators all around the world are using Khan's lectures in what's called a "flipped classroom" whereby students watch lectures at home and then work through problems together in class that, in the past, would have been typically assigned as homework. Because students can pause, rewind, and rewatch the lectures, Khan Academy allows them to control the pace and depth of their own learning.

In fall of 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun decided to offer a free online version of his Artificial Intelligence class. 160,000 students from all over the world enrolled. Even the majority of his actual Stanford students stopped attending lectures in favor of the more personalized experience provided by the videos. These results inspired Thrun to create Udacity, a website that delivers a variety of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for the benefit of anyone anywhere who wants to learn.

You can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill, and I've seen Wonderland.
Sebastian Thrun, January 2012

Two years later, MOOCs are everywhere. Even the world's top universities are offering MOOCs through Coursera and edX. With an ever-growing selection of courses, students have the flexibility to sample and explore any number of topics. For example, I am taking Principles of Economics with Calculus through Caltech and edX. Taught by Professor Antonio Rangel, it's literally the same class that Caltech students are taking. The Caltech students watch the same video lectures that I watch and take the same automated exams that I take. I might not finish the course, but that's okay; I'm taking three other MOOCs, I'm learning a lot, and I can always try again later without penalty. I've created my own self-organized learning environment.

Khan Academy and MOOCs can feed the curiosity of anyone who has access. But not everyone has access. Most MOOC students are upper class people with degrees. A relatively small number of the poor and uneducated are using these resources. As we noted when discussing University of the People, just because something's free doesn't mean it's affordable for everyone. And when the government subsidizes only students of conventional schools, the poor are denied the choice of learning in a way that's potentially cheaper and more effective. We, as humans, are life-long learners. We all can be students.

In my previous post, I asked about the best way for government to spend money. Well, we might get the most bang for our educational buck if we spent not on school, but rather on ensuring that all people have the freedom to choose to spend their time learning. Instead of maintaining a system whose purpose is to keep students from "falling behind," we can work to remove barriers that prevent them from getting ahead. Expensive tuition will no longer be a barrier once physically attending college becomes optional.

It's quite fashionable to say that the education system is broken. It's not broken. It's quite wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anymore.
— Sugata Mitra

I'll let you in on a secret: education is already free. It's school that's not. Maybe education is too cool for school.