Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Learning Is Free: Degrees Still Cost Lots of Money!

The accompanying video is a little longer than usual -- 11 minutes -- but it might well be worth your while because it explores the expanding realm of free, university level, on-line courses, taught by top professors in their fields. Currently, there are more than 2,000,000 students from all over the world -- including war-torn areas like the Gaza strip -- who are taking advantage of these programs.

Udacity ( http://udacity.com ), EdX ( http://edX.org ), and Coursera ( http://coursera.org ) are three of the leaders in this growing field. And, for the moment, each of the foregoing organizations is intent on developing innovative, technologically savvy techniques for providing a quality learning experience for prospective students.

The financial advantages of such courses for a would-be participant are obvious. For example, it costs approximately $54,000 a year to go to a private university such as Stanford for one year (and, of course, there is the little problem of being accepted), and even at a publicly financed institution like Berkeley, the cost can be over $30,000 per year.

So, what's the catch? Quite a big one as it turns out.

First of all, given the way in which the aforementioned programs are presently organized, the most one might hope for is a certificate of completion. In other words, there are no college level credits given for those courses, and, therefore, if one mentions such a certificate on a job application, one is likely to be shown the door with some free advice: "Come back to us when you get a real education (i.e., a degreed one)."

While offering free learning opportunities of high quality is a good thing, everyone knows that higher education has become a game of degreed pedigree. Pass your courses at Stanford or Berkeley, and you get a degree which has a potential exchange value for a good paying job. However, pass your courses at Udacity, EdX, or Coursera -- and such courses might be precisely the same as the ones which are given through the two foregoing establishments of higher learning -- but one can expect little more than the satisfaction which comes from having completed such a process and having learned something.

One might as well borrow free books from the local library. After all, in the end, irrespective of whether one reads a book from a library or takes a course on line, one is going to have to invest the time and energy necessary to learn, if not master, the subject matter.

To the extent that Udacity, EdX, Coursera and others are committed to pushing the technological envelope and, thereby, enhancing the process of learning through various technologically-based efforts which are geared toward making the generation of insight and understanding more efficient and more accessible to a wider cross-section of the population, this encompasses important work. Nonetheless, unless the aforementioned educationally-oriented innovators offer something beyond an opportunity to learn -- such as a realistic chance to translate that learning into an actual job -- I have a lot of doubts about the ultimate value of these sorts of extracurricular programs.

Higher education -- which really means higher degree programs -- has become (and, really, has been this way for quite some time) the new housing market. More and more young people are going into debt to finance an education that, after all is said and done, often does not have all that much market value.

Consequently, following the completion of the degreed programs, more and more people are discovering that they have become the modern world's version of an indentured servant. In other words, those individuals have accumulated a debt load which is unlikely ever to be paid, and this means that they will be forced into doing whatever jobs come along (often low paid, without benefits, and unrelated to their college degree) in order to service their debt.

Just as in the case of the mortgage fiasco of 2007-2008, banks and financial institutions that have bankrolled a student's long day's journey into a living nightmare, will make all manner of profits. Unfortunately, the indebted student will have little to show for the price of admission but debt, along with a certain amount of learning which could just as easily have been extracted for free from a local library or by purchasing a few $14.00 books (rather than the obscenely priced textbooks which have become a mandatory staple of higher education degree programs).

A further perk of the current arrangement in higher education -- at least from the perspective of the government -- is that people who are heavily indebted are so busy trying not to financially drown, they have little time to reflect on what the banks, financial institutions, and governments are doing to democracy with the profits which have been squeezed from those who are really in no position to afford higher education. Indebted people often tend to be individuals who can be induced to go along with the way in which the power elite wish to run things.

In the accompanying video, one professor is interviewed who thinks that the whole idea of free online courses is fraught with potential problems. She worries that those sorts of courses will displace professors -- many of whom earn quite good salaries (paid for, in part, through student debt), and she also worries that highly-paid professors could be replaced by lowly grad students and even more lowly undergrad students who will be given token amounts of money to teach courses much more cheaply than their high-priced professional counterparts.

Aside from being somewhat self-serving, the good professor's remarks also fail to capture the real problem of higher education. Higher education is a game of musical chairs intended to suppress the numbers of people who have access to the kind of degree qualifications that are needed to obtain decent jobs. In addition, higher education is intended to serve the needs of professionals (i.e., the professors and administrators), corporations (e.g., textbook companies as well as pharmaceuticals), financial institutions (the people lending students money), and the defense department (which, in one way or another, has its hooks into most institutions of higher learning across America).

The interests being served by higher education have corrupted the learning process. What is taught, how it is taught, why it is taught, who is taught, and who gets to teach are all heavily shaped by such financial, military, governmental, and economic interests.

The people organizing the free, on-line college-level courses believe that everybody should have access to opportunities for learning -- that learning is a universal human right. I agree with this, but I also believe that until an social/political/economic system is put into place that uses education to further the interests of all the people rather than the economic, financial, and political interests of the few, then free, on-line college-level courses have rather limited value.

Learning should be free ... it is a human right. In addition, however, degree programs need to be phased out, and in the place of those programs should be a process that makes getting a job dependent only on what one knows and not on where and how one learned such knowledge or gained that kind of understanding.

I have written about some of the foregoing issues in a more expansive way through my book: Reflections On Education And Learning (available through Amazon and other fine book stores everywhere). If you don't wish to read the book, then consider the above discussion my offering toward a free, on-line, college-level teach-in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it is really sad that parents are are going into debt to finance higher degrees.It is tragic that young people are graduating with huge debt loads they will spend too many years trying to pay off. Many of the students in these programs get completely stressed out and shut down their hearts and spirits...the real things we should be developing. it is no surprise that the most original thinkers don't thrive at school but in the chosen field instead.