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.