Citizen Science Musings: The Opening of Higher Education

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By Sheldon Greaves

Several stories have come to my attention over the last several months regarding higher education, a couple of which have also found their way to this blog. One of them is the recent new law enacted by California that promotes the use of open source textbooks in California universities and also provides support for developing such textbooks. The use of open source textbooks is not exactly news, but seeing the idea given state sanction is perhaps a first for the distribution of this kind of educational content.

Another is an even older story (at least ten years old by now), which is the increasing number of university-level courses available online for free. MIT started this with their Open Courseware project. Yale followed suit and since then there has been a proliferation of free educational courses with the structure and organization and rigor one would expect from some of the country's finest university courses. Add to that the course offerings, also free, that one can find on iTunes thanks to iTunes University.

For smaller, more granular learning, there is Khan Academy with thousands of short videos on everything from American history to the chain rule. It's a wonderful resource if you need a second explanation or just want to brush up on a specific item that temporarily slipped your mind.

Anecdotal evidence has reached my ears of employers actually hiring people based on their having taken a free online course. No transcript, no degree, but that seems to be enough. All this has led me to wonder what this portends for higher education in America and around the world.

The one factor that is missing in all this is the question of accreditation. Having personally taken a university through this process, I think I can speak with some authority on what it's all about. In essence, the process of accreditation is the acquisition of an off-the-shelf reputation designed to answer one challenge: "Prove that you know how to run a university." A sizable fraction of this process involves the business practices of a school; tuition, fees, refund policies, drug policies, diversity statements, the business model, fiscal responsibility... all of which become irrelevant once you enter a world of free online university classes.

The other questions such as faculty qualifications and course rigor remain, but if the school in question is Yale, MIT, Stanford, or whatever, it's unlikely to be a concern for most people. Yet another question is whether the credits you earn will transfer, but if you are just taking a course for personal enrichment or to impress a current or potential employer, this isn't a problem either.

To ask the question another way, what is the purpose of accreditation in an educational topography without student loans, tuition, fees, or business models that must satisfy the needs of non-profit organizations or shareholders? What kind of educational world do we get when it becomes possible for a student to amass the equivalent of an AA or perhaps even a bachelor's degree in coursework without enrolling in a university? Now MIT is offering completion certificates for students who finish a course, so you don't even need to worry about the lack of a transcript. Instead of resumes, students could assemble portfolios, much as photographers, artists, and other specialized professionals already use to catalogue and display their skills.

But, there's a drawback to all this. Completion rates of these free online courses runs about 5%, which from my perspective as a former university administrator represents a major failure. The university where I worked as Chief Academic Officer, Henley-Putnam University, routinely enjoyed student retention rates in excess of 90%. What's the difference?

Without going in to too much detail, the short answer is that successful online universities cultivate an active learning community. Humans as a whole tend to learn best in social settings. We learn from each other, we push each other along. Improve the social environment and quality of the community, and you improve student retention and completion rates.

To put this yet another way, consider that combining free courses and textbooks with a strong, dynamic, diverse, supportive learning environment with lots of communication channels and venues for interaction is what could be the last link that distinguishes a completely new model of higher education from its staid, accredited older brothers.

Could this be the future of higher education? If anyone with a wide circle of curious friends and acquaintances, or who knows how to form and grow a thriving community around an abstract idea (such as, say, the value of learning for its own sake), might this represent the learning institutions of the future? If you've been paying attention to my recent columns, you'll know that I think that CSL could well become part of this new and growing movement. In fact, I think that organizations like CSL could become major players in a new and exciting world of open, diverse learning models that will create fantastic opportunities for amateur and professional scientists alike.

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One Response to Citizen Science Musings: The Opening of Higher Education

  1. Anna Sudaric Hillier says:

    I am in agreement with George. I do however, think that any education anywhere helps to further a person’s view of the world around them. You may not get any degree. But, like I always say, ” It is in the mind and the body to have this information and to use it for your own advancement and to learn how to do reports or convey to others’ your status of learning. I never wanted letters after my name. In fact; I was tempted to add
    T.N. to honor a person whom I felt did a lot and never really got recognized. That translates as Telescope Nut.

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