Thursday, April 22, 2010

Online Learning and Being Officially Educated

wisteria, in bloom at the park

I noticed with interest the story "Downloadable Education," on the cover of last weekend's Education Life section of the New York Times, which discussed various free educational resources. The world of free education might be attractive for lifelong learners and home-schoolers, but, glaringly, it doesn't come with an official degree, accreditation, or recognition.

The obvious follow-up question to this is, what is the purpose of such official recognition? My thinking is that a degree from an institution is a guarantee by an objective third party. An individual may claim to be good at math, but if Harvard grants him/her a degree in math, the claim is more persuasive. At the least, an educational institution acts as a responsible agent to ensure that tests are administered fairly. Even if an educational institution ends up teaching educational culture as much as any subject, learning how to succeed under someone else's rules does have real-life relevance, as when a person goes to work in an organization or a corporation.

This is to say, an individual may have the capacity, and it is becoming increasingly possible, to learn something online without having to register for a class or become an apprentice to an expert, but to learn something and be recognized by society for it (and barring some product of your learning such as an independent portfolio), that individual continues to be somewhat beholden to occasionally messy, dysfunctional, or unfair educational systems.

Consider on the one hand an example of online learning deployed in real life: An organization's mandatory employee training program, covering topics such as How to Lift Heavy Objects and How Not to Sexually Harass One's Co-workers. Self-paced, easy to use, with quantifiable assessments, would it be surprising to hear employees trying to figure out how to cheat the system? Many might consider the training a chore to be done as quickly as possible, using tactics ethical or not. On the other hand, consider learning for the sake of learning, in the form of a higher degree in the humanities. Every anecdote I hear about a humanities PhD relates that it should be pursued out of love for a subject rather than hope of professional reward. With that in mind, what motivates people to participate in the humiliating, grueling, and time-consuming process of a graduate degree program? Is it the attention of an insulated group of scholars? Why not just remain an enthusiast, reading books and attending public lectures and exhibits -- much of which can now be done online? Does an individual truly need formal academic training to satisfy a curiosity about the world? Open learning may be for the people who answer "No" to this question.

And so, while open access to enriching educational materials is wonderful, I wonder whether it revolutionizes education to the extent that some imply. It is true that all you need for a learning experience these days is a computer and a network connection. But in the mainstream, open educational materials are supplemental, and it is still necessary for someone to validate that learning experience. Can technology fully replace this last, yet?

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