When I was receiving my formal university education in the United Kingdom, the college fees for a local student were £3000 annually. Now, 6 years later, that figure has increased three-fold to £9000. According to a report by Catherine Rampell of The New York Times, the college tuition fees in the USA have increased by a jaw-dropping 559% since 1985. According to a report by ASSOCHAM, the tution fees in India increased by 160% between 2000 and 2008 and as of 2012, the increase stands at 320%. Add fuel to the fire, most students enroll in tutions outside school anyway where they get more personalized attention that is lacking in classrooms. Go anywhere across the globe and apply for a course at a well-known university and you can see how this hike in numbers is not an uncommon trend. Good-quality formal classroom education is becoming hugely inaccessible and unaffordable and as a result, lesser and lesser students are applying to colleges. It’s not that they’re not looking for a good education. It is perhaps more likely that they are unable to offset the cost of this education with the value it will provide. Or even more likely, that they simply can’t afford it.
Then contrast these figures with the inexpensive prices of desktops, laptops and high-speed Internet connections and the access people have to each other across time zones and continents. Plus, the willingness of top universities and their faculty to share their knowledge by making it available online and we find ourselves parked on the brink of not only understanding but also participating in a world-wide revolution of how technology is changing the way we learn, teach and educate ourselves.
Several partnerships of top universities with technology companies are gaining popularity as they mature in their offerings. Harvard has joined forces with MIT to launch an online classes website called edX. Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky started Udacity with an aim to provide “high quality and low cost” university-level education by using the “economics of the Internet”. Bangladeshi-American Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, founded Khan Academy, a non-profit education organization with a stated mission of “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”. Taking it to the next level is Coursera.org, a collaboration started by Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and his colleague Daphne Koller. Not only do they provide courses from the top universities like Michigan, Penn and Stanford, they are also creating an interactive platform that will allow grading, testing and peer-to-peer discussions. They are one of the first of these websites that is taking steps to provide a more wholesome online education experience.
Although it can be argued that these online learning websites are not a substitute for a college degree, the value of self-education is becoming increasingly apparent and pertinent. Take Computer Science as a subject for instance. By its very nature, the content of the subject and a great extent of its practical applications are online. The need for a traditional degree in this industry is not nearly as important as the kind of knowledge you are able to imbibe through tutorials, discussions, blogs, reviews and entire textbooks.
Even more interestingly, the technology industry has this notion of Open Source, at the centre of which today is GitHub. Open Source is difficult to explain, but OSI describes it as “a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process”. Twitter has 77 public repositories and Facebook has 57 public repositories on GitHub and a wide range of developer tools on their Open Source page. These are sophisticated pieces of software available for anyone to study and use. Sure, these may currently just be supplementing factors to a formal education, but enroll yourself in the Computer Science 101 course on Coursera.org which starts from the basics with a zero-prior-experience standpoint and add to that a few more basic and advanced courses that will no doubt be available online in the near future, and the value of self-education will gradually become less elusive.
Further shifting the concept of self-education from a mere choice or preference to a desperate need makes online learning initiatives seem like a natural next step. Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist based in England talks about his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment on Ted where he and his colleague dug a hole in the wall in an urban slum in New Delhi, India and installed an Internet-connected PC in it. They filmed the area with a hidden camera and observed over time that kids from the slums were playing around with the computer and in the process, learning not only how to use it, go online, but most importantly – teaching each other how to do it.
Over the next few years, they replicated this project in other parts of the country with similarly successful results challenging some of the pre-conceived notions surrounding a formal classroom education. He eloquently encapsulates the heart of the matter by explaining that, “Education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” In a country where education reaching each and every person is a concern, this experiment is indicative that in the absence of supervised or formal teaching and given the right tools, children can and will take the initiative to teach themselves if they are “motivated by curiosity and peer interest”. High quality online courses like Coursera.org could enable communities with monetary constraints to hope for a better education and in turn a better future.
Yet another benefit of online learning is the idea of accumulating and exchanging collective knowledge and the exponential growth that can be derived from it versus the comparatively limiting scope of individual knowledge. The web has long established itself as a system where the value of content is determined not by individual contribution, but by the contribution of multiple individual sources. Take Wikipedia for instance, where people from all across the globe continually contribute to create a database of valuable and useful information giving users the power to drive the value of the content created. But this is still a premature phase of the true power of collective knowledge. Tom Gruber in his paper of Collective Knowledge Systems addresses the current state of the web as “Collected intelligence” rather than collective intelligence. He rightly observes that it is too soon to call the web a source of collective intelligence because “there is no emergence of truly new levels of understanding.”
What is extremely imperative is to realise that online learning initiatives like Coursera are the bridge we need to transport the web from a collected information source to a truly collective information source. The value of physical contact and interaction with teachers and students in a classroom cannot be replaced by these websites. Humans create content, experience problems and learn empirically. But it would be foolish of us to not realise and embrace the unparalleled value, accessibility and speed that technology and online learning websites can bring to the development of the human race.