Thursday, April 2, 2009

As seen on!

Is education being rationed?

Clearly, education is being rationed. But I don't think it needs to be. We're doing something to vastly inflate the costs of education.

Consider: what resources are required to successfully pursue an education? People in this discussion are talking about throwing out the luxurious dorm rooms and recreation centers, then dumping the multi-millionaire coaches. But we can think bigger.

Drop the library. Drop the computer lab. Drop the buildings, drop the campus, drop the frat houses, drop every damned thing until you're left with nothing but the exchange of information itself.

All you need to pursue an excellent education are materials to master, projects to practice your knowledge, and expertise to guide your study. The cost of the materials should rapidly be approaching zero. Laugh if you want, but a growing mind could do worse than a steady diet of Wikipedia articles. MIT's OpenCourseWare is putting vast quantities of course material online for free. is a warehouse of thousands of course lectures, the same lectures being given at our most prestigious universities. (Google Tech Talks) let you peek in on what happens when the brainiest company in the world brings in outside experts to fill those brains. Open source books are rapidly approaching -- hell, often exceeding -- the quality of books currently being used in the classroom.

That's a lot of material. Thousands of hours of stuff to wander aimlessly through. There is no better time to be a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, someone who hungers to improve his or her mind. But it's easy to get lost, to be left in the middle of a dark forest without a map or compass.

So we need paths. We need a sophisticated, branching curriculum that guides students through entire disciplines, at least as far as a bachelor-level understanding. You want to be a computer scientist? Fine. We'll need to introduce you to the concepts of data structures and algorithms. We'll also need you to understand some basics of programming. Finally, here's the first set of math concepts you'll need. Go to it.

We also need to be able to evaluate where a student stands in regard to those concepts and materials. In short, we need tests. Exams could be very brief and very discriminating. It should be relatively easy to create software that can quickly gauge a student's understanding of a set of concepts, with nothing but a set of multiple-choice questions. Given the student's responses, it should be able to say exactly which concepts the student isn't grasping, and recommend further study materials that address the concepts.

Teachers aren't going to lose their preeminent positions, but their roles would change somewhat. They would still be defining curricula, but there would be a lot less of that. Rather than teaching an entire course to the same set of students, and figuring out how to lead one group along the entire path, they would master the art of nudging students out of their unique ruts, answering questions, suggesting projects, etc. The students would be learning at their own pace, the software would be doing the day-to-day guidance and evaluation, and the teacher would be troubleshooting from the sidelines. I would hope that there would also be much more time for research.

Once the foundational work is done -- the materials collected and organized, the curricula defined, the software written -- all that's left is for a group of people to have the huevos rancheros to step up and accredit the process, to make the bold claim that their college can give your child a quality education for a couple grand a year (plus tips).

Your children can participate from anywhere. Still living at home? Backpacking through Europe? On work release? It hardly matters. Wherever you and your Kindle are, you have the materials you need, and know what to study next.

The current model is broken as hell. Like the health care industry, we pay too much into it, and get too little out. The difference is, the process of maintaining the vast complexities of the human body is far more difficult -- and necessarily more resource intensive -- than the process of putting knowledge into a human skull. Ninety percent of it is just getting out of the brain's way and letting it work.

1 comment:

Nala said...

If you really think this would work for you, you're much, much more disciplined than 99.9% of students. "Work at your own pace"? Please. My own pace is thinking "gee, I should have opened that textbook today" while I'm lying in bed falling asleep. I fully agree that the system is broken and that most things can be done much, much more cheaply with extensive use of online resources. But somewhere, there needs to be the equivalent of a big stick with a nail in it. One's scheduled to hit me on Monday at 8:30.

Also, I don't think multiple-choice is usually the way to go--it's worth the extra labor and cost to have more meaningful tests.

So by all means, overhaul the higher education system. Just don't discriminate against those of us who aren't brimming with self-discipline. Discipline can easily be applied externally through the copious use of deadlines.