meep (meep) wrote,
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New year, new developments, same thoughts on education and credentialing

Last night, I had to move this post compiling links to my thoughts on education to 2025. Some years ago (2007? 2008?) I had started that post, and stuck it in Jan 1, 2012 as it was far enough in the future that it would stay atop the page. Obviously, I didn't stick it far enough into the future.

I have a bunch of stories open right now that I'm considering. I will start with the "new development": MITx
For Wall Street Occupiers or other decriers of the “social injustice” of college tuition, here’s a curveball bound to scramble your worldview: a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) will announce on Monday that they intend to launch an online learning initiative called M.I.T.x,which will offer the online teaching of M.I.T. courses free of charge to anyone in the world.

The program will not allow students to earn an M.I.T. degree. Instead, those who are able to exhibit a mastery of the subjects taught on the platform will receive an official certificate of completion. The certificate will obviously not carry the weight of a traditional M.I.T. diploma, but it will provide an incentive to finish the online material. According to the New York Times, in order to prevent confusion, the certificate will be a credential bearing the distinct name of a new not-for-profit body that will be created within M.I.T.

The new online platform will look to build upon the decade-long success of the university’s original free online platform, OpenCourseWare (OCW), which has been used by over 100 million students and contains course material for roughly 2,100 classes. The new M.I.T.x online program will not compete with OCW in the number of courses that it offers. However, the program will offer students a greater interactive experience.

I plan on signing up for at least one MITx class, just to check out how it works and see its difficulty. (I did the same with the Khan Academy recently - I tried some of the quizzes to check the suitability for Mo & Bon to use it). I don't need more credentials (two BSs, one MS, and an actuarial credential... should be enough for most folks). But I never have enough education. I've been using OCW for years as a resource - sometimes reference, sometimes just for pure fun. Learning new stuff is the way I entertain myself.

But the limitation of OCW compared to being enrolled in an official class, is that you don't get feedback... which is what Khan Academy has been adding to its very large catalog of instructional videos. So I'm going to see how MITx incorporates that, to see if it works well.

I could say I had this idea over a decade ago, but I highly doubt I was the only person to think of it -- it's a very simple idea, but requires a lot of work to execution, which is where the real value lies.

I will note that back in 2008, I wrote a letter to the WSJ (not published there) on the distinction between education and credentialling:
As a teacher of an actuarial exam seminar, I am devoted to make sure my students learn the syllabus and most especially how to apply it in an exam situation; the Society of Actuaries has the incentive to keep up the standards of the profession so as to maintain the reputation of actuaries (exam committees are composed of SOA members); employers want to make sure their employees aren't wasting time in study techniques that do not work (and want to make sure they've got employees who can manage the work); employees want to be successful in their careers.

Let us compare this to the current college experience, where the professor sets the syllabus, assigns the study materials, and sets all the exams. There is rarely an external measurement of what knowledge or thinking skills one has attained during college. There is a great deal of variation in rigor between colleges (which is usually taken into consideration by employers), between different departments (again, usually taken into consideration, using broad generalizations), and between different sections of the same class (which is usually not taken into consideration, because it requires too much knowledge on the part of an employer). Many students are in college to get their piece of paper, their credential, as they see this as a pathway to a good career, which their teachers and parents have been telling them for years. But the credential means little -- accreditation measures only the inputs to the college experience, inputs that many times have only marginal impact on the amount of education received. Why should it matter how many physical copies of books the campus library has, when any student can get on the Gutenberg Project or books.google.com and look up the info online?

Even more so, many of the elite institutions are sharing their information with the world for free. The best example of this project is MIT's OpenCourseWare: ocw.mit.edu. MIT has put up material from each one of its classes, and even some special classes from special sessions not officially part of the curriculum! If I want to learn, not caring about the piece of paper, I go there and download videos, pdfs, spreadsheets, slides, assignments and exams -- and to think I thought I'd never afford an MIT education! Many other institutions have followed in MIT's path. Kudos to higher learning here.

Similar thoughts here from 2008.



Here is something old -- I'm re-reading Bleak House, and will be recycling the book after I finish it (I've been giving books one last read as they fall apart, and then recycle). There is a character in the book named Richard Carstone, and the following passage jumped out at me:



I felt this to be true; though if I may venture to mention what I thought besides, I thought it much to be regretted that Richard's education had not counteracted those influences or directed his character. He had been eight years at a public school and had learnt, I understood, to make Latin verses of several sorts in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody's business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to HIM. HE had been adapted to the verses and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection that if he had remained at school until he was of age, I suppose he could only have gone on making them over and over again unless he had enlarged his education by forgetting how to do it. Still, although I had no doubt that they were very beautiful, and very improving, and very sufficient for a great many purposes of life, and always remembered all through life, I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little, instead of his studying them quite so much.

To be sure, I knew nothing of the subject and do not even now know whether the young gentlemen of classic Rome or Greece made verses to the same extent—or whether the young gentlemen of any country ever did.

The issue of useless education, especially at "elite" levels, has been around for a long time.

A question from 2007:
In this age of OpenCourseWare, Wikipedia, the Gutenberg Project, and on and on....what is the purpose of universities? Just to hand out certificates that you know a very narrow area of knowledge?

This is really going to be a sticking point for universities and colleges -- they're really going to have to justify their existence, given that the equation of "college degree = good job" has been eroding as a paradigm over the past decade. A lot of the people bitching in the Occupy crowd were mainly complaining of having lots of college debt and no jobs to show for it. Sure, a lot of other issues came along for the ride, but "somebody please hire me/nullify my student loans" seemed to pop up quite a bit on protestors' signs. (somewhat a different flavor than protesting the draft to fight in Vietnam, eh?)

This was not a new phenomenon. I remember reading Ted Rall's book Revenge of the Latchkey Kids: An Illustrated Guide to Surviving the '90s and Beyond, which I found as a diatribe regarding his large student debt accrued getting a degree for a job (cartoonist) that requires no degree at all. (An aside - I think I creeped out Rall back then, as I discovered he lived only a block or two from me, and I contacted him, trying to get him to sign the book. I think he believed I was a crazy stalker. I didn't ask more than once, though.) I'm sure that Rall thought his book conveyed a larger message than that, but that's the one thing that came through loud and clear to me (similarly, Geoffrey Miller's book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior supposedly talked about consumer behavior in light of evolutionary principles and the Big Five (or Six) theory of personality [openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extroversion (with intelligence as number 6]...but the message I got from him was that the kind of luxury spending on education and "elite" leisure and goods was "better" than the hoi polloi pursuit of bling... or, rather, that the stuff he, Miller, liked to spend on was okay and not wasteful, and also, he's a good liberal even though he is indicating that people are not infinitely moldable.)

The thing is, people are spending (or accruing in debt, same difference) the equivalent of some very nice cars every year on what supposedly is an investment in their future. And then they find out that no, their degree means very little and they actually need to learn some real skills and knowledge. The nerve of the marketplace!

(Still cracks me up to think my mother considered me being impractical in majoring in physics, and breathed a sigh of relief when I added on math. I could always teach math, you see, so it was a practical major. Heh. While physics itself doesn't transfer directly to lots of activities in the "real world", it does signal a certain level of modeling and math ability...which is more than a degree in French Literature does for people nowadays.)

In any case, it looks like universities had their brief time in the sun, economics-wise, and are now going to have to retool to think through how their "business model" actually works. I'm talking about the "not-for-profit" variety - which, while it's not being driven by returns for stockholders or owners, do need to have a certain amount of cashflow to continue operating. Even universities as a source of research is wearing a bit thin as a justification:
From the Chronicle of Higher Education comes a story that should make every mediocre academic in this country shudder in fear. Mark Bauerlein has looked under the hood of the “research” that professors in English literature conduct and he has documented what many of us know but few want to think about: nobody reads much of this stuff.

Nobody. Not even the other scholars in the field.

Much, perhaps most, of the research that American university professors do could be dumped into the ocean rather than published — and nobody, not even the other professors, would notice.
....
The real problem, and if the state and federal fiscal crunches go on for much longer it will be upon us very soon, is that our society is less and less willing and able to pay for research that nobody really wants or needs.


Our universities today look a lot like the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII: vulnerable targets for a hungry state. State legislators are going to be wrestling with questions like whether to cut the pensions of retired state workers, cut services for voters, or raise taxes. In this atmosphere, the research university model (in the humanities and, economics and management excepted, the social sciences) may not long survive, at least in the public sector. (Highly endowed private universities may keep the old model alive.)
....



Teachers must be evangelists for knowledge. We have a society that produces an ever growing torrent of unread “research” while fewer and fewer people know or care anything about the cultural heritage that the “research” ostensibly aims to examine. This is idiocy and it is madness, and the expense can no longer be borne. It will change.

It's not just the humanities that have this issue. There are certain corners of math and science departments that have become so over-specialized, the papers there are also little read. I realized this in the particular field I was trying (before I dropped out) - while I found the topic interesting, I realized that at most a handful of people would ever read my research, and that my results would likely have no impact, as they perspective.

My current day job is a more practical type of research, and the whole point is to try to get people to read it (and particular people at that). That's a challenge - amassing information, and doing analysis isn't the hardest part of the job. Even writing what I found isn't difficult (obviously, I've had a lot of practice writing). It's trying to figure out what to research, and what is the most important message to convey to my audience (heck, even trying to figure out who my audience should be is a challenge). I am not doing this in a vaccuum, of course, but always discussing with my colleagues and outsiders what they think and try to synthesize that into something that actually provides useful insight as well as captures interest. (There are auxiliary goals, but I'm not getting into that now.)

This sort of thing fits my personality better -- even though I like researching and learning new stuff, and then attempting to impart it into the ether, that's for my own amusement. For my =work=, I would prefer to do something productive to other people.

But back to the education v. credential issue (with research and other amenities as a side). Universities and colleges will likely need to separate the two functions more to be viable, as well as reduce stuff like "Director of Student Affairs" or non-grant-supported research (and it remains to be seen how much in grants will be available). Those last items will be seen as the luxuries they are, when the aim is really credentialling. There will still be luxury educational institutions out there for rich people to waste money on, just as there are luxury vehicles (and it will be noted that Lexuses go from point A to point B just as well as a non-luxury Toyota...so the margin for these frills may not get people as much in the job market as imagined). The market for luxury frills in higher education will likely contract from the current situation, as being seen as unaffordable. (I'm not even addressing government subsidies here)

In any case, I look forward to seeing what MITx rolls out next year. I'm hoping the class will be in something I don't already know well (I could see them doing a calculus, intro physics, or something course...but I know that stuff really well, still). But even if not, I'm going to try it out to see how well this new concept of providing education, and a credential (albeit a modest one), is implemented.
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