Wednesday, February 02, 2011

We don't need no education

Well, I don't really believe that. At all. But I am starting to wonder if it is at all necessary to participate in said education in a brick and mortar building. Of course, lots of people before me have pondered and resolved that very question, taken online classes, and gone about their lives. I, however, naysayed online classes for a while, figured they were all a big cop out, probably not challenging, hardly even "real," etc. I also failed to stay put in any standard brick and mortar school longer than a year at a time after graduating high school.

This year, I'm back in school again, and taking two online classes. As I noted a little while ago, my online classes pretty much consist of forum-based discussions about assigned readings, a few short quizzes, and a couple of essays or projects. Essentially, stuff I'm already doing. It's only the beginning of the semester, but I've noticed some pros and cons to both on-campus and online classes. Online is great for some obvious reasons: I took a quiz yesterday at 9pm in my pajamas, with a glass of wine in my hand. While showing up to an on-campus class with alcohol is certainly not unheard of (in fact, I'd almost call it common), it's usually quite explicitly grounds for punishment of varying severity, depending on the circumstances.

One definite benefit to being on-campus is doing your learning and working in a place that is both designated for those very things, and is largely free from distractions like Facebook, Nintendo, your Netflix queue, or the rest of the bottle of wine you've just corked. I also personally get a lot of benefit out of talented instructors' lectures.

The arguments in favor of taking online classes over on-campus classes tend to revolve around convenience, in one way or another, but I think we may be missing a vital piece in this dialog. In my current online classes, I am usually, at minimum, at least aware of the general information we're learning about. American Radicalism, for example, incorporates the history of oppressed and marginalized people in the US since 1492, and the radicalism each of these groups used to gain equal social, economic, and legal power. It's a fascinating class, and for it I'm reading A People's History of the United States and The Radical Reader, both very interesting and illuminating for someone who usually finds history to be a challenging subject in which to remain engaged. What I've noticed, though, is that I already knew about a lot of the things I'm learning about, and what I'm benefiting from most are two things: someone with authority telling me I need to read something or I will suffer negative consequences; and my instructor is a great lecturer who puts things into perspective in that really great-teacher sort of way. Otherwise, though, what I'm learning isn't anything that can't be learned in ways that I've already been getting an education: from the internet.

That's the best and most amazing thing about the internet. If you can afford an internet connection, or have regular access to the internet, you can learn just about anything you want. Even given Wikipedia's occasional criticisms, or the elitist nature of the blogosphere, one can find a wealth of information if you look hard enough. All you really need these days is one of those obnoxious Facebook friends (cough, sorry friends) who constantly posts links to topical stories, blog posts, talks, and petitions to get you started. And I'm not even talking about reading links people post and agreeing with them; mostly, I think that following links to blogs is vital, because people always have blogrolls, and you can go nuts with all the access to all the information you could possibly ask for to find counterpoints, opposing arguments, new and exciting ideas whose existence you were, until that very moment, unaware of... the list goes on.

I've spent a while feeling somewhat inferior for not having a degree, so, every couple years, I attempt to remedy the situation by enrolling in some school or another. Since getting a grownup job and having more responsibilities and all that good stuff that comes with being an adult, I've also found that I have less and less patience with what "going back to school" actually means. Right now, it means driving 36 miles round trip and walking what feels like miles in wickedly frozen wind and snow two days a week, acquiring several tickets for expired car tabs, and dealing with the rowdy, inconsiderate, loud masses of people in the common areas. I look at my more academically-inclined friends and family, and I feel a mix of envy and awe. For one thing, they've usually been in college since the fall after graduating high school, so they aren't 27, stuck in community college classes with 19-year-olds who still think the White House is in Washington State, doing assignments on things they already learned on their own in the blogosphere two years ago. Also, they've stuck with it. They have managed not only to get their asses out of bed and to a class at the right time, but also to focus their energy on completing assignments, learning material, and engaging in the learning process.

Realizing the redundant nature of my current "official" education is making me feel strongly about democratizing our education. An article in the Washington Times, while a couple years old, remains relevant in its theories:

Abraham Lincoln did not attend a formal law school, yet he practiced law. While I do not advocate going backward and allowing just anyone to put up a shingle, I suggest people might be able to meet certain academic goals and objectives through nontraditional means, at less cost, and be able to prove their level of education without receiving a degree from a traditional institution. It is worth exploring.

Why not allow people to prove their knowledge and experience in a way that does not require money, or access to money, or prestige, or access to prestige? It's elitist snobbery at its finest, and I am officially opposed to any such thing. In the meantime, practically anyone, practically anywhere, can learn practically anything, by just looking.

Some of my favorite places: and PBS's Forum Network for lectures and talks about new ideas about anything you can think of, from religion, scientific breakthroughs, current events, philosophy, and more;

Netflix, obviously, because there are scores of documentaries from reputable sources about everything;

Bankers Online, which I realize is a little industry-specific for me and my job-related experience, but seriously, it's an amazingly valuable resource to learn about anything banking-industry related;

GovTrack, which will inform you of everything Congress is up to, summaries and full text of pending legislation, etc.;

Wikipedia! Of course! The place where no one can visit just one page.

Wikileaks, too, if you understand WTF a "cable" is;

Google! Where it all begins!

MIT Open Courseware. I have yet to try this, but I think it's fantastic, and I hear other schools are climbing aboard this trend. And it raises the question, yet again, of why someone completing MIT courses and possibly coursework can't get professional recognition for their work just because they aren't paying anyone.

How Stuff Works, which also has a podcast that I used to love listening to at work, is great. It's basic-but-interesting information on topics you wouldn't otherwise have a reason to understand, like How Quicksand Works, among many, countless others.

Of course, if education as we know it now were to become easily accessible to everyone, how instructors and professors earned a living would dramatically change, as well. That is a complex issue in itself, but the idea of democratizing education is a powerful one, and worth really digging into.

What are some valuable educational websites or forums in which you participate? Do you think there is a value to maintaining the prestige of Ivy League schools? How do you feel about easily and affordably allowing people who are largely self-taught to receive academic and/or professional credit for their work?

Do you see any benefits to maintaining the educational system as it exists right now, thereby restricting access to certain people who are unable to meet certain demands, like tuition?