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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Open Education: learning is at our fingertips

Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in Open Courseware programs. Open Courseware is the concept of college courses being offered to the general public free of charge via the internet. The pioneer of the Open Courseware movement was MIT, who began this initiative in 2002. Soon, reputable universities such as Yale, Berkeley, Norte Dame and Tufts followed suit and created their own open courseware programs. This raises many questions about the future of education in the modern world. If were are able to access courses provided at some of America’s most elite institutions at no cost, why are we still spending upwards of $160,000 to obtain degrees from these same universities?

This dichotomy leads me to ask: Who owns the knowledge anyway? Is it worth $160,000 to have access to the same information but have a grade attached to it? Do college students attend school simply to get a piece of paper we can show to prospective employers, or do we go in order to expose ourselves to new ideas and concepts that enable career success and personal fulfillment? The truthful answer is: maybe a little of both….but maybe more of option A.  To be quite realistic, if you truly want to learn a piece of information, the college classroom is not the only place to obtain it. That’s what Google is for! Back in the day, nerdy, diligent, determined people would rush to the library to discover an answer to a pressing question. Now it isn’t that hard. The answer is literally at our fingertips. As long as we have a phone or computer near us, we have an infinite amount of knowledge at our disposal. The Worldwide Web has replaced academia as the gatekeeper of knowledge. And yet here I am, like so many other 20 somethings, taking out obscene amounts in loans in order to be assigned online articles and write about what I’ve read (How original!)

Colleges and universities are recognizing and maximizing on the internet’s possibilities and offering online degree programs that students can complete in the comfort of their own homes.  It makes sense right? Why pay for utilities and campus maintenance costs when you can just streamline everything to the web? (Oddly enough, these programs still end up costing almost 40 grand a year. Funny how that works out.)  Nevertheless, online degree programs are a viable option for millions of people. A 2004 survey indicated that 2.35 million students were enrolled in online courses nationwide. ( I’ m willing to bet my right arm that number has grown significantly since then. Many people question the effectiveness and validity of these online programs. I mean, isn’t the success of your college experience contingent on the relationships you make with you professors, students, and the overall campus environment? Not really… At the end of the day people just want the degree so they can become marketable in their particular field in order to get paid more, and gain the qualifications to boss other people around.

But wait! Companies are paying less and less for college educations! MSN Money reported, “The four year college degree has come to cost too much and prove too little. It’s now a bad deal for the average student, family, employer, professor, and tax payer.” Why you may ask? The simple answer is college degrees are becoming a dime a dozen. More and more people are seeking them and the inflation of diplomas is lowering the financial return on our investment.  Moreover, the cost of education continues to rise. MSN reports that over a period of 10 years, increases in tuition and fees were 36 percent at private colleges and 51 percent at public ones. Yeesh! That doesn’t seem too hopeful.

What is the alternative you might ask? What if we were able to train ourselves to utilize the valuable gift of the internet in the highest possible way? It is easier than ever before to educate yourself on a variety of topics for free! Higher education has typically been used as a means of dividing the smart intellectuals from commoners. Not the case anymore…anyone can get a degree! The question is, why are millions of people spending crazy amounts of money on online programs when they can access the same information virtually for free? I’m wondering what would happen if we invested those thousands of dollars into the actual goals and dreams we attend college to reach? If we want to go to business school why not invest in an actual business? If we want to pursue sociology to do social justice work, why not start a large scale social justice volunteer project? Hey, $40,000 a year is a lot of money I’m just saying. Initiating these experiences would make us more knowledgeable and experienced then we ever dreamed we could be sitting in a college classroom. I know these ideas are quite fanciful but you’ve got to start somewhere right?

Open Courseware Links: Why not give it a try?

About daretheschool

I like to keep an eye on our shifting world and the way it is shaping our education system.


15 thoughts on “Open Education: learning is at our fingertips

  1. I think Dale’s Uncollege idea is very much based on the same perspective.

    The issue I see is, there more to college than the knowledge. If people are going to be accessing open knowledge, that’s terrific, but they also need to see those ideas challenges. Too often material is written from the perspective of “this is the truth” rather than “this is A truth.”

    So how do get move into resources which provide people with excellent information and knowledge, but which is also open to criticism? How can we ensure that the campus discussions about ideas still happen? They don’t necessarily need to happen on a university campus, but they absolutely should continue somewhere.

    Posted by dwees | August 23, 2011, 3:27 pm
  2. Very true. I think that online environments offer an outlet for such discussion. I think that is what we are doing right now. I think we need to get out of the habit of thinking there is only one way of maintaining authentic learning environments…classroom meetings have many great purposes, but it is certainly not the only way of doing things. I would argue that the discourse I am exposed to via internet groups such as this is much more open than the ones on my college campus…but that’s just my experience.

    Posted by daretheschool | August 23, 2011, 3:33 pm
    • I thought about that as I wrote my response, but it occurred to me that my most deep connections have been face to face. The online discussions have been invaluable, no disagreement there, but they aren’t sufficient.

      Posted by dwees | August 23, 2011, 3:45 pm
  3. This isn’t exactly the same…but I think it is a move towards more crowd sourced education… something Holt and Illvich and Goodman were pushing for in the 70’s…..

    I think this is a start….


    Posted by dloitz | August 23, 2011, 3:39 pm
  4. Definitely. It also changes the notion of who the “expert” is. With a website like, people experienced in all sorts of disciplines are able to teach their craft…without having a PhD and being a professor of some sort. This is a huge shift in learning…however certainly not the only way to learn. 🙂

    Posted by daretheschool | August 23, 2011, 3:44 pm
  5. I love this discussion (and am so glad to have stumbled onto this community recently!). College has long been sold as the big goal, sort of a finish line for the rat race we put school children through—the place you want to end up, the only path to a “good job” (i.e., something impressive-seeming, or if not that at least something wealth-building). And of course, boatloads of people end up wasting valuable time and huge piles of money in college when they don’t really need to be there. College can be great for some but certainly isn’t the answer for everyone. I’m hopeful that the combination of crazy-high tuition and reduced diploma value will lead greater numbers of people to do what you suggest: carve out their own work by *doing* the work.

    Posted by Mindy | August 24, 2011, 12:50 am
  6. I have a lot of cognitive dissonance between learning and credentialing, as well as between tech-mediated learning and person-mediated learning. I have a strong bias towards the frequent – if not constant – use of technology in a classroom. However, I also appreciate moderation and teaching and learning through the physical world and its phenomena. I also read a lot of urgent news and opinion (mostly on Dropout Nation) – as do we all – about high school drop out rates and college completion rates.

    I don’t think college always has it right; however, considering the income disparities between those with a college degree and those without, and given our compounding failures in transforming our neediest schools, I worry that those most able to make some kind of academic and/or entrepreneurial leap past college are also those most able to attend and complete college. What do we do with college, income, and those caught without the resources to attend college who cannot escape poverty without it?

    What is the non-college solution for those students? If attending or not attending college is a “good” problem to have, what is the educational and entrepreneurial solution for kids unable to access that problem?

    We’ve tackled a lot of systemic and instructional topics here; what do we think about higher education, particularly as an issue of social justice? I can imagine a school system that helps revitalize communities; what role does a college education or the promise thereof play in such a system?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 24, 2011, 4:35 am
  7. I am not a fan of the current model of higher education, but I hold the same tension that you do Chad. I think because currently we strive to send everyone to college (for good or bad) that we must start having a serious discussion about what college is….

    Thinking with Backwards Design, should we not first reform the place we hope everyone attends before we reform the place that is suppose to get them there…

    If High School is preparing students for College, Middle School preparing students for High School and Elementary school preparing students for Middle School… then should we not start at the top.

    I hardly ever hear the national media talk about reforming pedagogy in college, or discussions about the wasted time taking basic lecture classes, or teacher (experts) who don’t know how to teach (or never even took a teaching course), or the number of both students and teachers just “getting through it”; ….

    People are fast to blame teachers and students in high school for this type of behavior but I never hear it discussed about college….(well unless you are in college) yet this was my experience at a state school and also often even at my progressive art school and living in a college town, I hear stories all the time about this type of classroom culture.

    so while I not a fan of college as the end goal of education, if it is going to be… then we need to start reform there and work backwards….


    Posted by dloitz | August 24, 2011, 9:23 am
  8. I have come to perceive the “degree” to be a commodity, or at least an indicator of one’s personal knowledge “capital”, with the degree then being used in a transaction in which one exchanges themselves/their knowledge for money or other ‘value’.

    Over the years I have learned a great deal more outside of classrooms than inside of them.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 24, 2011, 1:32 pm
  9. Here is the Autodidactic Hall of Fame: Self-educated People Who’ve Made a Difference….


    Posted by dloitz | August 28, 2011, 1:50 am
  10. I agree wholeheartedly that we could jump into the world of sociology, anthropology, social justice etc., and do it! We can turn an idea into reality using the knowledge that is free via the internet. We could work as self-directed entrepreneurs, learning by doing. What effect would this have upon the system now in place regarding college degrees as access points to certain positions of employment?

    Posted by Kristine | August 29, 2011, 5:06 pm


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