by Reid Hardaway — University of South Carolina
August 25, 2010 – 22:14
When envisioning a more just world with a better quality of life, education cannot be based on privilege, but must be integrated as a fundamental right. Let the only barrier to knowledge be the desire to pursue it with rigor. Presently, our methods of dispersion and accessibility of education are woefully inadequate given the tools. Ultimately, interconnectedness is only what we make of it. If there were the will, we could provide the largest and most egalitarian distribution of knowledge in human history. Imagine if anyone with access to a library could go watch videos of a physic’s class from Harvard, a course in literature from Yale, a math class from M.I.T. Few people on this planet can afford to attend these prestigious houses of learning. Fewer are ever considered for admission. Currently in America, 30% of high school graduates do not attend a post-secondary institute of education.1 Somewhere between affordability and achievement standards, these kids are not deemed suitable for higher learning. This does not, of course, take into consideration those who drop out of high school and are cut off from learning much too early in their life. If we believe that there is an innate value to knowledge, then we have a moral obligation to provide the widest possible access to education. We should cast a net as wide and deep as the globe. In every case where humanity has expanded the opportunity for enlightenment, the good does not merely outweigh the bad, it overwhelmingly conquers it. If we believe that knowledge is a guiding light for the progress of humanity, let us take seriously the obligation we a have to make it accessible.
Can our current system of education be reformed? Progress can be made in providing better access and quality of knowledge. But by only focusing on the traditional institutions, we ignore efficient solutions to the problem of knowledge dissemination. Everyone recognizes that attempting to unweave the generations of bureaucratic knots of the old system will be extremely difficult. The political concerns of teachers’ unions will inevitably conflict with the agenda of parental activists. State and local governments are bound to disagree with the imposition of standards by the federal government. Affordability, family situation, social expectations, class, gender, ethnicity, etc. create a myriad of problems that are not easily solved. This year, tuition at four year public post-secondary schools are projected to rise in every state. Additionally, students are taking on astronomical levels of debt; the average graduate will have around $23,000 in debt from student loans2. Higher education is a costly affair and, for to many people, is a dream deferred by the receipt.
Solving these problems at the institutional level is going to require an exorbitant amount of time, energy, political will, and money; all of which will inevitably come from a depleting reserve. Community reform, outside of the educational system, will be required. This is not to say the reform is impossible or is not worthwhile; however, if the goal of education is to create access to learning, new perspectives and alternative methods need to be taken. By creating a public video database of all classes from post-secondary institutions, we bypass traditional barriers that prevent access to knowledge and invite people to take on the pursuit of education as a matter of self reliance and personal responsibility. External problems will undoubtedly remain, yet, we would begin the process of making knowledge acquisition more a matter of personal will than of fortunate circumstance. I am not attempting to discount the value of accreditation. But those who wish to learn for the sake of learning should not be impeded because, for whatever reason, they do not have access to higher education.
Will unlimited and unpaid access decrease the quality of education in post-secondary institutions? My first response to this is a qualitative assertion; education begets more education. As people have more access to higher forms of knowledge, I believe people will want stronger and more direct engagements with learning. A high school student may find a love for biology by pouring over videos of science classes from Berkeley at a local library. Knowing that he or she could never afford or be admitted to Berkeley, that child becomes committed to earning a state scholarship to study biology at a local academic program. Not only have we created more access to knowledge, we have incentivized a method. Let us assume, now, that the child does not go on to a post-secondary institution. At least that child had the experience of studying science at one of America’s best colleges. Our citizenry will only be improved by such events. Some will call this hypothetical idealistic or utopian. But given the scale of the internet, I think it is rather harder to imagine that this scenario would not occur every day, every hour, every minute. The scope and reach of the internet is so large that one cannot conceive of the rippling implications that occur when knowledge is simply released. But, to reiterate the concern, will opening access be a disincentive for students to attend college? There is no evidence to support this assumption. Libraries did not kill the publishing industry. People who read, like to read more. When a professor publishes a popular or well regarded book, students are more likely to take his or her class. It is a proactive and enlightened form of advertisement. Additionally, professors who publish videos of their classes are already seeing higher enrollment rates. Quality of instruction is not likely to decrease either. A research article from Science magazine uses quantitative measurements to show that online students have nearly equivalent standards of success, retention, and completion as traditional students:
From data provided by individual institutions, we do see quite uniformly that grades and completion rates for well-designed online courses taught by experienced instructors tend to result in equivalent outcomes for both online and traditional students. In most cases, therefore, it appears that online students receive an education equivalent in quality to what they would receive in traditional classes, and their drop-out rates appear to be about the same.3
Of course, the article is comparing American students enrolled in accredited programs. It does not measure the potential benefits of life long uninhibited access to all classes taught by all higher institutes of education. Clearly, the benefits to such increased access are exponentially greater than the measurements given of a single institute within the timeframe of four years. Additionally, the Science article is comparing students taking online classes with students taking traditional classes. For the purposes of this argument, one should consider that millions of people across the globe with access to online courses for free might never have the ability to attend a post-secondary institute.
To what extent will instructors resist having to adapt their lesson plan to an online model? In one sense, they don’t. Merely posting their lectures online would spread the benefit of their expertise across the globe. Additionally, the Science publication reveals evidence that instructors would be more than willing to adapt to an online model, if needs be:
Almost unanimously, online instructors assert that although preparing and teaching online courses is more time-intensive than classroom teaching, they plan to continue teaching in that modality for a variety of reasons: the flexibility of “anyplace, anytime teaching” for themselves and for their students, opportunity for professional growth, the option of teaching from home, and interactivity with students, which they report is of higher quality than classroom discussion. These faculty are also motivated by a strong conviction that the work they are doing is important to students who need flexible access to education, although they point out that online students need to be more self- disciplined. In addition to the data reported by a handful of institutions, a completed national survey of nearly 10,000 faculty members from a recent diverse sampling of 60 campuses by Seaman and Allen confirms these conclusions. Economic issues also come into play for some faculty. Commonly, an on-ground itinerant faculty member who travels to three campuses a week may absorb sizeable transportation time and costs. Online instruction brightens this picture. By teaching online, those faculty can accommodate an additional course or two—a substantial bonus for an adjunct professor earning a living by teaching.4
Is there a legal argument in favor of requiring all public institutions of higher education to post online videos of every class they offer? If they themselves or any of their students receive any form of federal or state money, then the public has a right to access a significant form of that education. Since taxpayers are paying for scholarships, research, and academic employment, then citizens are entitled to greater access than they are currently given. Surely, we all benefit from the research and publications of these institutions and no one can argue that the graduates are in a strong position to become positive civil servants. But what cannot be said is that the information garnered in these public houses of learning is widely distributed for the general welfare. If academic institutions are receiving public benefits, then they should be required to use all available and reasonable tools to promote the general welfare in a direct and unmediated way. If youtube can host thousands, maybe millions, of videos that consist of little more than debased self-exploitation, why can’t an academic database host thousands of videos of higher education classes from the most prestigious universities in the world? Let not the enlightened be outpaced by puerile.
In the highly politicized case Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that universities could have a diversity standard based on race because it extended access to those who have not been traditionally represented in higher academia. But the warrants for the argument extend further than race. Justice O’Conner writes in the majority opinion:
diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession. Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. High-ranking retired officers and civilian military leaders assert that a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps is essential to national security. Moreover, because universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation’s leaders, Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 634, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.
Again, the argument of this essay is not over accreditation. Though a debate can be had over admission standards, no one would say that post-secondary public schools should not have significant control over their admission guidelines. Providing universal access to knowledge is not about racial diversity, it is about human diversity. The diversity of ideas can only produce revelation when it is met with a large diversity of access. In this sense, O’Conner’s opinion promotes the idea that there should be no barriers to learning other than personal will. It is in the spirit of O’Conner’s decision to extend the qualifiers of race and ethnicity to include anyone who has the desire, regardless of their personal circumstance.
If knowledge is essential to democracy, commerce, and national security, then access should be of primary, not secondary, concern. A note of disclosure; I am not a lawyer. I am merely the over-privileged son of a lawyer. However, if the Civil Rights Act mandates that public institutions cannot receive government funding if they have over restrictive standards of race, why should they receive funds if they have over restrictive standards of mere access?
Do institutes of higher eduction, public and private, have an ethical responsibility to put every class they offer online, free of charge, for all to see? Only if we believe that the value of knowledge is greater than the greatest house of learning within which it is currently manifested. Knowledge is larger than an institution, and it is more important than the most enlightened academies on the planet. They are a means to an end. Currently, Harvard has an endowment of twenty-nine billion dollars. This caters to about twenty six thousand students. That is an investment of a little more the one million dollars per student. I am not judging how Harvard spends its money; I am taking exception to the ways knowledge is hoarded and barricaded in elite institutions. Let every graduate of Harvard have that prestigious accreditation, but let us not deny the knowledge offered there to anyone who desires it. We must recognize that for every one kid who has the ability to attend Harvard, there are one million who equally deserve to go. What would it mean for humanity to have one million Harvard educated individuals who never stepped a foot in Boston, or paid a dime for a class?
For the purposes of this essay, I have mainly focused on the American educational system. But the internet is a global phenomenon. A little more than fourteen million individuals are in America institutes of higher education. Across the globe, approximately two billion people have access to the internet. If one percent of those users took advantage of the video database, that would more than double the amount of people who are receiving higher education instruction in American universities. Now imagine that a child from Somalia might have access to a class in civic engineering from the London School of Economics or an adult from China might be able to take a class in English Law from Oxford. The scope of the internet is so large, one cannot predict the benefits. Currently, some classes are trickling onto the internet with free access. Http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses is an excellent website that provides various lectures from Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and other prestigious schools. But compared to what we could be doing, what is available is insufficient. Academic institutions should take on the responsibility to catalogue, manage, and post videos of all classes they offer and should give suggestions for how self directed student should proceed. Openculture.com does great work and is a superb resource for anyone looking for higher education. But let us take off the training wheels to higher learning on the internet. Let us not hoard the greatest treasure that mankind has yet cultivated. Let us not restrict access to learning for any reason. We should not fear what humankind might do with such a powerful engagement of intellect. Instead we should invite it. Knowledge should not be for the few, indeed, we fail the human race by not using the internet to disperse all forms of enlightened education to as many people as we can reach. Let us use the internet to usher in the greatest enlightenment since the printing press. Let us conquer ignorance by providing the greatest access to knowledge possible. Let us err on the side of access and availability and acknowledge that the benefits, though difficult to predict, have the potential to reform everything.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics
2Wall Street Journal, “Students Borrow More Than Ever for College” Sept. 4, 2009
3 Science, “Online Education Today” January 2, 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 85 - 89