Education and the Open Internet: Good MixThe changing face of education and the power of the open Internet come together for me in Udacity. If you have not seen this site, check it out. With the cost of traditional education rising faster than the CPI, students are faced with the prospect of many years paying off school debts. Many colleges and universities have responded by offering free online courses, and some of them can even be applied toward a degree. Khan Academy is another well-known alternative. Readers might have others they think are excellent.

Not all online education is free. Many organizations have sprung up to offer courses leading to certification in various commercial applications such as real estate sales. I have taken a paid driver’s education online course in lieu of paying a speeding ticket. An online course was a good alternative to driving someplace and spending time with a roomful of disgruntled fellow offenders who would rather be somewhere else and an instructor who knows that. I even learned some things.

Traditional courses did not evolve as they are because society values that the student-teacher special bond (which is rarer than most suspect) facilitates learning in any special way. Traditional courses were simply the cheapest way to educate a lot of people, and education for the masses became popular rather late in the development of societies. The really traditional methods of education were apprenticeships for the lucky and life experience for most of the others. Formal education was traditionally a rare thing. While private tutoring and self-teaching can be highly effective, neither seems to be effective for mass teaching. Lumping a bunch of students together in a room to listen to an expert talk is cheaper than hiring tutors for each one. And why are classes traditionally an hour, more or less, long? I know of no psychological principal that suggests this period matches the attention span of active students. [Side note: there is one use of an hour class. Since an hour is approximately a micro-century, a professor can give students a feeling for large numbers by suggesting that, as bored as they are after an hour in class, imagine it a million times longer, and that is a century.]

A non-traditional method that I rather liked when I tried it many years ago is the Keller plan. If you Google that, you will be led to many fine articles. The Keller plan at least has the benefit of having been designed with psychological principles in mind (specifically behaviorism).

But traditional educational techniques and even alternatives such as the Keller plan were developed long before the information explosion that we call the Internet. Financial considerations and the state of technology colored everything in the development of our educational system. Required text books could be sold for high prices because duplicating them would have been more expensive than buying a complete book. We see providers now struggling with the economic fact that an exact duplicate of educational material that has been digitized can be made on demand for little or no cost. This is a major game-changer. It might not be as obvious to people outside educational facilities as are the well-publicized troubles that the music industry has with copying. Institutions with vested interests in the traditional way of doing business naturally want to preserve that model rather than admitting they are obsolete. Publishers and professors both find the traditional role must change — and no one will lightly give up traditional income!

Lest anyone wonder about my prejudices, let me say that I greatly value education and think that any society worthy of respect encourages all people, not just the young, to continue to learn as much as they can. We can get hung up on issues such as who should pay for education, but that is another discussion. Let us just say that society should rightly be organized such that people who want to learn are encouraged to do so, and that learning should be seen as an enjoyable experience. We can sell the economic benefits of education by telling young people they will get better jobs and make more money if they get a college degree. That is certainly true, but economics is only part of the story. Better education means better people.

My bias toward promulgating education is why I think the growth of freely available formal courses and education (as opposed to fortuitous surfing) is such a wonderful thing. Very few of us can find our way in non-directed learning. On the other hand, one-size-fits-all classes and curricula can be stultifying and merely an expense to get a diploma to open doors. But if Udacity or some equivalent organization offers a planned course, then completing it can help you be assured that you have truly mastered a subject.

The word “free” can be used two ways in describing online teaching. The obvious definition is that no money exchanges hands. But free can also mean free as in free-wheeling or free from arbitrary constraints. The examples I cited in the first paragraph seem to strive for both types of freedom. That is what excites me.

The same tendency has to be what frightens authoritarians. It is not far to go from free education universally available to unleashing the demands of people for better government and less corruption. Having ready access to the learning of all societies can provoke questioning of local values.

But there is no free lunch. Online education can also be used to teach bad things. Many terrorists have self-help sites. Racists and other various pseudo-scientific groups have sites that offer “teaching” of what they consider to be proper values. To me that is an predictable hazard that comes with the tremendous value of an open Internet. Some things are destined to never be free, as “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”