The Future of Education

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So the perception is that the college/university system is dying, or at least anachronistic and a new model of learning is needed.  Every other TEDx talk is by an entrepreneur who thinks education is a barrier to creative thinking and a waste of productive years.  Economic analyses show the ROI of attending college isn't worth it for many graduates.  The government funded primary school system is severely mismanaged.  That thing that Aristotle thought was the foundation for a virtuous life is in shambles.

Witness the rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Coursera, Udemy, MITx aka edX which now includes Berkeley and Harvard are all different implementations of online learning systems intended to address the problem statement above.  There are others.  (Udacity) Udemy is a free market of instruction, allowing anyone to be an instructor or student, in any subject.  Teach what you want, charge what you want and if someone is interested, great.  It has a less traditional course structure focusing on skill development.

Coursera and edX have nobler mission statements:

[Coursera] We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.   We envision a future where the top universities are  educating not only thousands of students, but millions.   Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.  We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

[edX] EdX is a not-for-profit enterprise of its founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the web. Based on a long history of collaboration and their shared educational missions, the founders are creating a new distance-learning experience...Along with offering online courses, the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning—both on-campus and worldwide.

Where Udemy has more technical skill based content, edX and Coursera have more traditional university-type courses, with an emphasis on physical sciences, engineering and other non-humanities subjects.  Liberal arts are only now starting to come on line.  What all three have in common is that they are content delivery systems.  You sign up, there is a cirriculum and course content, you consume it, maybe you take some kind of assessment.  The idea is that you are getting access to knowledge that would otherwisebe restricted to a formal educational institute.

A counter-revolution to this 'revolution' are public discussion groups: see this post by our own Wes on the subject.  He points out the tension between grassroots collective learning and the academy and this applies equally to the new learning models.  There are two things at issue:  expert instruction vs. peer discovery and the traditional student/teacher model vs. a discussion group structure.

For subjects where there is a canonized body of knowledge or a particular skill it seems like a unidirectional learning model is just fine.  Want to learn organic chemistry or C++?  Take this class.  Have questions?  Google it.  You miss out on the comraderie and interaction with peers that makes a university or college setting so personally enriching, but hey, you save 10s of 1000s of $$.

Philosophy at least is not the kind of subject that lends itself to this kind of model - for people who are really interested in it.  There is a canon of thinkers, but not knowledge.  More importantly, philosophy is a dialogue with both it's own history and fellow thinkers.  Unidirectional learning would simply deliver some one person's (or a collection of several people's) point of view about a topic or thinker.  That is not the level or type of engagement that philosophy demands.

The reason that the Partially Examined Life has been successful and why we are unique is that our podcast is a living, breathing engagement with ideas by some guys who are pretty smart but certainly not claiming an authoritative position.  We're more entertainment than instruction, but in the mold of old school television like Dick Cavitt or Charlie Rose before the rise of the current culture of hyperbolic talking heads.  We invite our fans to 'listen in' and join us on our journey.

While everyone else is figuring out how to get content to people who can't attend college or create a way for anyone to be a student or instructor (and make money at it), we want to solve the problem of how to engage more with our community and get its members to engage with each other.  Local discussion groups are great - the question is how technology can help us create a global platform allowing PELers to engage in honest, direct, courteous, thoughtful, stimulating discussion about philosophy regardless of geography.

We have our own ideas and are working on it.  We certainly welcome yours.





  1. dmf says

    some of the more successful online classes are in fields like computer science where doing the work, solving problems, building models, and such, is necessary on the learner side to moving ahead with the class/program, whereas in the humanities (in person and online) faculty are struggling to get students to do the assigned work, so unless we find some equivalent model of participation the humanities online will continue to falter.
    We need some kind of “peer” accountability along the lines of a meritocracy of effort if not results.

  2. Oreoluwa Babarinsa says

    I have rather mixed feelings about these online learning schemes. My inner technologist/computer scientist is really excited both about the technologies involved and thinks its a great way to really use the internet to disseminate information. Further, since I have to good fortune of being a teaching assistant for a class that should be going up on edX in the fall (Harvard’s CS50 course, which I implore you all to explore, *shameless self-promotion*), I feel great that we can now reach more than the few hundred kids sitting in the class.

    However my more social oriented side has a deep problem with how many over-eager futurists see traditional education as something that is fundamentally replaceable. Even in the Computer Science field, there’s a lot of knowledge distillation that happens in office hours, late night coding jams, and face-to-face cooperation. Even something as technical as the finer details of pointer arithmetic just seems to get across more easily with a white-board and a human face vs. any sequence of interactive technologies. Even expanding on that, while there are distributed startups/internet ventures (many open-source projects have head coders who never physically meet and with Bitcoin no one even knows who the real identity of the head coder), the vast majority of tech startups start with a bunch of friends working the proverbial dorm room/mother’s garage just jamming out code together. And even big open-source projects many times have central development teams that work together in a physical space (many programming languages that operate under the BDFL model do this, as does the Mozilla foundation, and many Linux distros).

    So I guess what I’m prattling on about is that online education and distant learning are great, but I think there’s certain wrong-headedness in the bull-headed rush towards it. The face-to-face study group, personal interaction with teaching staff, and the other intangibles of the university experience make up a large portion of the collegiate level educational experience which I think we’re grossly under-valuing as a society.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      Well said. The formal academic setting is as much about the social and collaborative aspects of learning as about imparting knowledge. And there definitely is a bull-rush to try and create a nation of self-taught entreprenuers. Perhaps things like literature can’t compete in the new marketplace of ideas because they aren’t ‘monetizable’, but for the vast majority of people, this new model bodes ill.

  3. Andrew Cruickshank says

    I think the hard part of education remains, which is what Principal Skinner refers to as ‘the fun of sitting still, keeping quiet, writing down numbers…’ Learning things takes time and attention, no matter how well they’re taught. Even things you are really interested in need more care than you will naturally give them if you are going to really master them (probably because its a social thing).
    I think the other commenters are right that the absence of fellowship in online learning can be a problem, mainly because of my experience listening to Japanese language podcasts for a couple of years. Due to my failure to practice speaking and writing, I ended up learning almost nothing (except that the Japanese have a word for ‘Dad Jokes’ – those bad puns and lame jokes Dads make. Is this a cultural universal?)
    Through commenting occasionally on the Facebook page I was able to work out my level as a philosophy ‘speaker’ – opportunities for interaction are very good. I wondered when I saw your appeal for blog posters whether you could have a system for taking submissions and giving a bit of feedback, expecting to reject most ideas but posting the very good few to the blog. Probably too many people would write you their hobby-horses and take criticism of them badly.


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