Friday, May 31, 2013

What the hell is education anyway?

I found out recently that my university plans to integrate massive open online courses (MOOCs) into the curriculum in the coming years, which has created a bit of a stir among the faculty. Part of the fear is that the quality of learning in such a large and often asynchronous environment does not compare to the traditional classroom. A larger fear, I believe, is that easier access on the part of students combined with increased reach for the most gifted instructors threatens job security.

As a future professor, I share both of these fears. But amidst the uncertainty and my desire to claim that MOOCs have no place in higher education, I found myself trying to figure out what the hell education is anyway.

A continuous (and perhaps inevitable) push and pull between the idealistic and the realistic aspects of education are a recurring theme in my mind. In an idealistic world, education is important for its own sake. Moreover, in a nation of the self-governed, a more intelligent citizenry is key for a functioning civil society (whatever that looks like).

Realistically, some people are just plain stupid. We can't all be Harvard graduates, and if we were, the McDonald's cashier down the street would understand why I gave him $10.41 for a $6.41 order. I firmly believe that college isn't the best investment for everyone, but culturally we accept that truism.

Education -- or at least the certification a diploma brings -- has become a point of differentiation. Simply put, there is value in education.

But how is this value quantified? I have always found the language I hear around universities interesting. For example, students are "getting" a degree and graduates already "have" one. Despite being more accurate, I less often hear of people "pursuing" a degree or "working toward" something in their given fields of study. Education has become more valuable as a possession than as a process, but all the idealistic merit is in the latter.

Graduates possess only a diploma, which may or may not reflect how educated they are. We have subjectively and arbitrarily decided that four years of classes certifies graduates to work "better" jobs. I'm not necessarily opposed to such a system because it does require work to earn a degree, university systems provide some means to evaluate skill, and liberal arts educations typically brings some level of enlightenment to students -- even if by happenstance. But to conflate such a system with education often amounts to little more than a bait and switch necessarily perpetrated to keep university lights on nationwide.

So are MOOCs a form of higher education? In the idealistic, process understanding of education: maybe. In the realistic, commodified sense: depends on the university ROI.

1 comment:

  1. I think you would like the book "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner. While it s slightly outdated the points are still valid and it is a really interesting read about what countries are the happiest and why etc.