When it comes to Education: Think Value, not Price.

My great grandfather was a coal miner, and a poet. He did not go to college (it was early 20th century), but he was surely keen on education and learning. Two generations later, most of my aunts and uncles have at least associate degrees , and a handful of them have post-undergraduate degrees (M.Ds, Ph.Ds, M.S, J.D, Pharm.D…etc). In my generation, all of my cousins have at least a college dergee, and most of them have either completed, are still working on or are planning to obtain post-undergraduate degrees. It is quite apparent that an emphasis placed on education has had a profound effect on later generations. As a result, even when I was a kid, I was constantly bombarded with the idea that the number of diplomas received from renowned educational institutions directly correlates with how competitive I am in the job market.

This relationship seems harmless and straight-forward, but I was never given an explanation, let alone a justification.

Ironic, must I say, that we collectively complain about the high cost of education, and yet so few of us could actually articulate what we’re really paying for. If all that we need, is a piece of paper to prove that we’re good enough for the job market, then it seems, at least to me, that we’re wasting grands of cash and years of time by going to college – are these really just rites of passage to framed pieces of paper? If this really is the case, then of course we should complain about the price of education, because our isn’t worth much at all!

A good while ago, MIT made its course lectures available through MIT OpenCourseWare. It was a commendable effort to make educational content accessible to the public, but little did many know, most college professors already publish their presentation slides, homework assignments, even exams online. In reality, very few college faculty members try to intentionally keep unenrolled individuals from accessing college course materials. In this sense, I would say, MIT’s OpenCourseWare is more of an organizational breakthrough than a social one.

When Bharani and I started contemplating the idea of empowering educators with the information technologies they need to create and deliver their lessons over the internet so as to reach out to students in distant regions, even those not enrolled in schools, I realized that I was, on numerous occasions, asked for my opinion on how educational technology may one day make colleges and schools obsolete. When I asked for what inspired this worry, the answer was often “well, now you’re allowing those not enrolled in classes to gain access to content they did not pay for”.

Before I could even think of a response to the actual question, I was astonished by I just heard. It seemed as though those who asked me the question have decided that the thousands of dollars they paid colleges, are for exclusive access to educational content. I couldn’t help but to consider the similarities between this percept of education, and literary inquisitions. It seems quite contradictory that at colleges, what we presume to be cradles of free thinkers, are now perceived as form of social control for those who can afford the tuition to maintain their competitive advantage.

This is not what I believe what education is, or should be.

To subscribe to this view of education, is to believe that a student who read more books is unconditionally better educated than one who read fewer.

When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, one of the first things I noticed is that not only do many colleges share the same textbooks, similar lectures and sometimes even similar exams. Even if the course materials are different, one can very easily gain access to additional content on the Internet. Even just within a single college, all the students in the same class read the same lecture slides, the same books and take the same exams, but they’re certainly not guaranteed to have the same educational outcomes.

It would perhaps be a mistake to think that one’s education starts and ends on aborption of educational content. We live in an era where speeches and ideas are generated and shared freely, and in the midst of these exchanges, one is bound to come in contact with ideas that contradict one another. It is then, extremely crucial to be able to analyze and assess these ideas so one can come to informed conclusions and make conscious choices. Needless to say, the skills and the ability to apply the skills can hardly be perfected by reading or sitting through a class; and schools, especially colleges, are venues at which students get to meet other students who may hold different opinions on a subject matter. Meaningful exchanges of arguments are crucial to the development of decision-making and problem-solving skills.

Perhaps the reason why some of us believed that sharing educational content poses a substantial threat to schools is because we believe that education is only about what we passively receive from classes. Herbert Simon once said that learning results from what a student thinks and does, and a teacher can only impact what a student does to learn. In other words, a substantial portion of learning happens outside of class when we juggle with the ideas that we’ve been exposed to and discover what is the most plausible to us, be it rational or romantic, scientific or artistic. A book has barely any knowledge value to us if the ideas in the book mean no more to us than the characters the book was printed in.

If it’s what we think and decide about educational content that counts, why can’t we share a book with someone who may benefit from reading it? After all, how much a person learns from the book, is up to the person to decide.


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