Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Is the Age of Information an Egalitarian Utopia?

There are two article that, especially when taken together, left me with some deep thoughts about my chosen profession as a college teacher.

First there's this NPR conversation with Dale Stephens, founder of and author of Hacking Your Education. His argument is, pretty simply, that many people don't need college to be successful and that there are a wealth of free resources that allow us to teach ourselves.

Then, Thomas Friedman has a NYT op-ed about a related subject titled "The Professors' Big Stage." This article takes a look at the open source resources available to people online. Right now, for instance, you can access mass quantities of high-quality information (including entire college courses) through Academic Earth, Open Culture, MIT's Open Courses, Open Yale Courses, and TED. We have more information available to us than any other generation before us, and in some ways this technology revolution has acted as a great equalizer for education. Friedman questions what the role of the professor is in this intellectual climate. 

Stack of old books

In addition to these two articles, I was reading an article from the Journal of Basic Writing for a reading group today. In "The Importance of Placement and Basic Studies: Helping Students Succeed Under the New Elitism," Edward M. White talks about the pendulum swing between egalitarianism and elitism in education:
"American education is subject to two contrasting underlying motifs: egalitarianism, the argument that everyone should have opportunities for success, and elitism, the restriction of opportunities to the most 'deserving'--which often means to those from a relatively privileged home." 
I think this swing is important to consider in the new climate of information as well. There are all of these free resources just waiting to be tapped, and in some ways that creates a more egalitarian platform for education than we've ever had in the past. In others, though, it can realign an elitism around new boundaries. 

What does it take to truly learn from all of these free resources? 

  • Internet access
  • Video streaming capabilities
  • Sound 
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Note-taking capabilities 
  • A community for discussion 
Let's look at the technical requirements a bit. Many of us take for granted that if we have internet access, we also have video streaming and the ability to listen to whatever we're watching. However, there are many people in America who cannot access the internet in their own homes. They do so on public library systems that are often time restricted. While there, they can only listen to the sound on videos if they have headphones because it's a public space. Some people have home internet access, but the quality is too poor to stream videos. If I want to show my mom a video at her home, for instance, I have to stand with my phone in one magic part of the living room and it will take about 30 minutes to load and watch a two or three minute video. There are plenty of people for whom this completely "open" resource is anything but. 

Now let's look at the other three skills. Critical thinking skills are learned. They are something that we hone over time. Can they happen without formal education? I think it's possible. But I do not think they can happen in isolation, which is why I think a community to discuss ideas in is so important. I also think that's why note-taking skills are key. In order to truly use what you learn, you need to be able to access it in different situations and apply it across different levels (I'm thinking here of Bloom's Taxonomy and other systems of that show how thinking has multiple levels of use). 

There are people for whom a willing community of intellectuals is non-existent. Some may say that the internet is closing that gap, but that--again--requires technological access. Also--and I say this as someone who really, really values the intellectual communities I have online--there's something affirming about talking with people face-to-face that just doesn't happen (at least not for me) in a computer-mediated environment. I want to know that I'm a part of the discussion, and sometimes that discussion needs to happen in flesh and blood. 

Finally, both Friedman and Stephens place emphasis on the value of networking. 

Stephens says "hacking your education is figuring out how to find the mentors, how to build the network, how to find the content and put those together in a package that works for you."

Friedman explains that "We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency — in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class — and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency." Essentially, this "competency-based world" will depend largely on how well you can demonstrate your skills to other people. That's going to depend on getting connected to the right people to begin with. 

I want to be on board with the glorious idea that knowledge doesn't have to be a commodity. I love that so many institutions of education are sharing their materials with the world. It sounds like an egalitarian utopia, but I think that there's still a lot of questions surrounding access and application that need to be taken into consideration as we open up the floodgates to "free and open" education lest we let the fantasy blind us from closing the gaps in our reality. 



  1. I think becoming educated is a lot like, say, climbing Mount Everest. It is definitely possible to develop mountain-climbing skills on your own, do a ton of research and figure out the most efficient way to climb, train heavily in a very disciplined way, get the right equipment, track down and talk to people who've done it before so you can ask questions and get advice, map out the best path using GPS and careful mapping, and so on... And be successful. It's definitely doable, if you are an extremely self-motivated, disciplined, outgoing, and careful person. And so is self-education.

    But I think for the majority of people, it's just not a realistic possibility, because it requires so much self-motivation and discipline, along with a willingness to constantly spend time searching out and tracking down experts, and asking the right questions, and such. Higher education (just like training with climbing experts and hiring a guide) is a way to have a tested, established, proven framework for education, and for there to be a huge team of experts at your service.

    One can become educated without such a framework, but it's a much much more difficult thing to do in every way except monetarily. And I think it's not doable except by the most motivated and focused of people... who are likely also the kinds of people able to win scholarships to institutions of higher education. Interesting to think about though... thanks!

  2. That's a great analogy, and I think that analogy also points to the privilege of growing up around people who are also doing those feats. If self-taught mountain climbing happens, it probably happens in people who are around others who already have those skills. Without those role models, I don't know if such a thing even looks possible from a self-taught perspective.

    Self-education would likely work the same way. For people coming from families and communities where very few or no people around them have the type of education that they are trying to earn, I just can't see a self-motivated model working, even if the individual him/herself has the dedication and drive. They're not likely to be able to figure out the best way to use it. Will a small percentage of those people persevere and make it through the toughest of odds? Of course. But education shouldn't be a miracle (as learning to climb Mt. Everest completely on your own would be); it should be the standard.

    Thanks for the analogy!