Theory into Practice: Rethinking Education

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

American higher education is pretty expensive. In recent years, many students and educators throughout the country have watched classes fill and costs rise in many institutions of higher learning. Despite the growing number of students in traditional postsecondary programs, new alternatives are appearing that allow students and educators to consider new approaches to education. Importantly, many colleges and universities throughout the US are under pressure to cut costs, even if this means eliminating entire programs. However, new institutions like World University and School (WUaS) are focusing on increasing general access to quality learning experiences by exploring multiple strategies for disseminating information for free.

In recent years, alternatives to traditional universities and colleges have become plentiful. For profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and the list of schools run by the Education Management Corporation have controversially provided opportunities for continued study for many students. On the other end of the spectrum, burgeoning initiatives like P2PU and other grassroots open education projects allow students to learn together for free.

In addition, many institutions have happily explored new uses of technology in the classroom. For example, Duke University saw the potential of iPods in the classroom as early as 2004. Clearly, introducing technologies such as MP3 players, tablets, and e-readers can improve access to information. However, the costs of these products can be prohibitively expensive for many students and institutions. This is especially significant in today’s economic climate, as universities are pressured to monetize and vocationalize higher education. Thus, it is no surprise that schools frequently use technology to economize teaching through various modes of distance learning.

In this environment, World University and School stands out. As many universities seek to increase their endowments, anthropologist Scott MacLeod leads the creation of a free, open degree-granting institution. Using prior teaching experience in virtual communities such as Second Life, MacLeod considers possibilities for new exchanges in contemporary network societies. Consequentially, WUaS embraces a wide range of free online resources (Youtube and Wikis) and available technologies (e.g. webcams in actual classrooms) to create virtual learning environments built upon the standard of MIT OpenCourseWare. While some schools like MIT make classroom content available online for all, receiving course credit is not an option for individuals learning via MIT OpenCourseWare. WUaS, in contrast, is currently undergoing the accreditation process in order to award degrees to students learning in its virtual classrooms.

Quite a few people have been critical of free/extremely low cost, online college education. Although some might consider projects like WUaS a challenge to traditional colleges and universities, the school’s goals include complementing existing degree programs. For example, MacLeod states that students would be permitted to take online courses not offered in their home institutions for credit.

Currently, WUaS has begun offering course material and is planning its first incoming freshman class in 2014. In time, WUaS hopes to offer multiple degrees, including Bachelors, PhD, JD, and MD. Though the project will take years to complete, it marks an exciting moment for the development of educational models. Its success will offer an important lesson for communities of teachers and learners interested in restoring the university as an institution for the public good. Although WUaS may not offer some of the rite of passage experiences that many Americans associate with college life, it also omits many obstacles (cost, geography, political borders, etc…) that can make higher learning inaccessible*.

*Of course, a glaring issue is permitting access to students without regular access to the internet or computers. WUaS does a fine job of strategizing with tools that are publicly available. While this lowers barriers of entry, large groups of people throughout the world have limited access to basic resources for plugging into the network.

What do you think?

Scott MacLeod gave additional information after this post was initially published.  For more information on WUaS, click here.

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