I was nearly finished with grad school before I took my first online course. I had never pursued it before that point partly because of limitations on the school’s part, and partly because the situation had never demanded it that seriously. Once Karen and I were married, however, I still had a semester to finish, and a brand new set of demands on my time management. Fortunately, online courses had become available, and I maximized the opportunity, to discover that I had fallen in love with the format.
Ideally, I like residential courses with a lot of the workload online. However, online classes are certainly the future of education in many disciplines, and I’m fascinated to see things like public speaking now being taught from a distance.
A couple of years ago, I was exploring iTunes U at it’s initial launch. I downloaded a literature class from Yale. I found it outstanding that I could watch a Yale professor lecture on one of my favorite novels, that I was getting the actual content of the course at no charge. Of course, no charge meant no credit, but a thorough education doesn’t necessarily equal heavy credentials. Knowledge is a beautiful thing, whether or not you acquire letters after your name to show for it.
I was only sort-of surprised that someone is finally attempting to bridge that gap, as well, however. MIT is now offering course credit for certain classes taken through an online platform at what many suspect will be a substantially less expensive rate than attending the prestigious school residentially would cost, building on the iTunes U model. This led to some conversation about what the future of education, and really everything else, will look like.
Personally, iTunes U is a gem of which I have yet to make full use. I have a lecture on technological developments in treating autism, and on the philosophy of film waiting for me, though, both from MIT. While researching my novel, I recently watched a lecture on quantum mechanics from Oxford. These are actual lectures from these schools. Typically, an entire course is offered. The knowledge gained is just as real as if you were in the classroom (minus, of course, what you learn by producing graded research assignments and so forth). I love that it’s out there for free.
I think there’s far too little of this. I’m concerned that academia is accessible only to a few. I see this manifest in different forms. While researching a proposal a few months ago, I found myself running up against a paywall. Should I want access to important academic research in the field I was exploring, I had to pay for a copy of an academic journal. Some research I couldn’t access at all because I wasn’t a current grad student. I’m bothered by this. While I recognize that the professors who conduct this research and write these articles for peer review must be financially compensated for their livelihood, at the end of the day, their research is being conducted for the greater good. Thus, I think the general public should have access to these articles.
I also see disciplines in the humanities, specifically the fine arts, being elitist and pretentious, producing art that only appeals to an ivory tower inner-circle of other authors and artists, to the exclusion of those who travel a different social sphere and come from different life experiences.
I think both are wrong. This wonderful knowledge, art, and research is so essential for the continued development of our culture, of our society. As such, it cannot be reserved for the privileged few, but must be accessible to all who wish to explore it. Now, I’m no economist. I have no idea how sustainable something like MIT’s new venture is from the perspective of supporting its professors so that they can do this sort of critical research. I also have no hesitation in agreeing that, if you want the credentials, then you need to do the work in the accepted manner.
All that said, however, I’m excited to see things like iTunes U begin to manifest. I’m excited to see this sort of culture and knowledge become available to our society at large, bridging an economic gap that has prevented many from exploring these sorts of ideas and fields. I hope more of this is to come, and that academic institutions leave behind hopes of profit in the interest of sharing their knowledge with the public.
I think the more art, the more philosophy and theology, the more scientific theory, becomes available for everyone who is interested, the better…dare I say, the more enlightened…we will be together. And I think that only good results can arise from that.