By: Walter F. Rodriguez
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
- Abraham Lincoln
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
One thing Dr. Richard A. Muller’s students consistently say about him is that he makes it easy to learn Physics. It’s why I decided to take his class. Dr. Muller teaches Physics 10, which he calls “Physics for Future Presidents” in his classes at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant,” the Alan T. Waterman Award “for highly original and innovative research,” and a citation by Newsweek as one of the 25 most important innovators in the United States. Most importantly though, he’s a great teacher.
William Arthur Ward once said, “the mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Having a truly inspiring teacher creates a love for the material and for learning in the student. Extraordinary individuals produce extraordinary results, but they are few and far between. Unfortunately, there’s only one Dr. Muller.
It’s why I’m sitting here, pen scratching notes into my notebook, as Dr. Muller explains subjects as diverse as the economics of oil, the formation of hurricanes, and the promise of solar power. As he goes over the syllabus for the class I get up to let the dog out and head over to the cupboard to grab some water before we get into the meat and potatoes of today’s class. I don’t want to miss anything important but I know that if I do it’s ok. I can always rewind.
I found Dr. Muller’s class online at the U.C Berkley webcast site. Currently, U.C. Berkley offers forty-six of its classes online as webcasts and/or podcasts. These are all completely free of charge.
Stunning, isn’t it? A school with a reputation like that of the University of California at Berkley usually makes a hefty profit by charging to allow you access to the incredible collection of thinkers, teachers, and innovators that they’ve got on staff. That’s what you pay the big bucks for, to learn from the best, right? Well, the best educations in the world are now being made available to everyone absolutely free.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), widely regarded as the top science and technology university on the planet, charges an average of $35,000 a year for tuition. Meanwhile, all of it’s 1,700 classes are available online at no cost. That’s right. Everything: the syllabus, the exams, the assignments and solutions, and the notes. The only thing they don’t give you for free are the textbooks. But you can go over to Wikibooks or Textbook Revolution and you might be able to download those for free too, if they’re part of the offerings.
What brought about this incredible change? The big name schools have realized that unless you get a taste of how amazing their staff really is, you’ll never know what you’re missing. You still have to pay to get a degree from them, but that treasure trove of knowledge they once hoarded is now a shared communal resource.
American government has realized that all those other countries that we never really paid attention to before have suddenly sprouted strong economies and their educational systems are harnessing available technologies faster than we ever have. We’re falling behind globally in many fields, and education is the most important of these.
In order to understand the cause of the educational crisis we’re experiencing, we need to understand where our current system of education came from, the environment that produced it, and what it was created to do.
A Brief History of Education
Nothing occurs in a vacuum and the birth of modern education is no different. The creation of our modern educational system begins with the advent of one of the most significant global events in modern history, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in the late 1700’s lead to huge factories being built and these factories were staffed by anyone able to work. Men, women, and children all labored under the same conditions and worked the same long hours together. There was work to be had and families to feed and the factory owners didn’t care who did the work as long as it got done.
Factory work was dangerous, especially with those early steam-powered machines. Accidents were common and even the children lucky enough to avoid a work-related injury had to deal with the terrible working conditions of the time. A few people were taking note of what was happening to the children and began to raise concerns about it publically. One of these was Charles Dickens, whose novels were meant to make people aware of the conditions facing children in England at the time.
Despite the efforts of these reformers, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the child labor movement made any serious headway. As more and more people began to support the idea of child labor laws, they received help from an unlikely group of allies – the children’s employers. Machines had advanced and less and less people were needed to run them. Factory owners realized that the new, improved machines could do the work that the children were doing far more effectively and cheaper. The movement continued to gain steam until in 1938 a law was passed in the United States forbidding children under sixteen to hold a job.
A problem still remained, however – what to do with the scores of children who now found themselves with days full of nothing at all to do? Crime rates began to rise as bored kids found new ways of keeping themselves busy and the children’s parents still had jobs to go to and couldn’t help to keep them under control. The answer was compulsory public education.
The goal of universal education was simple – training as many children as possible to one day take a job in the factories that their parents worked in. In those days the career path of most people was the same. You found a job at the bottom rung of a company and you worked until you no longer could. A lucky few were promoted to supervisors, but even those positions required very little general knowledge.
What the World Needs Now
As wonderful a step forward as public education was, it hasn’t kept up with all of the changes in the world around it. We still have the same basic emphasis in our schools – training one child to perform one job. In our present-day reality those simple jobs don’t exist. As new markets and technologies emerge, new jobs are created and people are needed to fill them. Some of the job skills that are deemed vital today were unimportant five years ago and every day more are added to the list. People must adapt to new types of challenges every day and be able to fill whatever positions are open in the companies of today.
Yet we continue to teach in the same way we have for decades. Even with the integration of things like Powerpoint presentations and computers into our schools, most classroom learning is still accomplished via rote memorization and note-taking. Very little teaching of that type occurs in real-world work today, where an employee is given a project and told to accomplish it and they are expected to teach themselves whatever skills are necessary for the project’s completion. In the workplace of today, employees are educated by actually facing a problem and developing the skills and strategies to overcome it, in much the same way that we taught ourselves how to speak and walk as infants.
Because of the failure of education to adapt to the changing needs of the world around it, we’re being forced to cope with the problems the old system has caused. Our system of education is still set up the way it was back in the Industrial Revolution, attempting to educate the average student at a rate that frustrates the exceptionally gifted and those that need more reinforcement in order to succeed. Students in low-income areas attend schools that can’t provide the same resources to them that their counterparts in higher-income areas receive. Thousands of students graduate college every year with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to repay and find that they are competing with ever-increasing numbers of other graduates for the same jobs and are consequently having to take whatever job they can get to try to pay off their educational loans. (This creates a type of educational inflation. Because so many people are obtaining bachelor’s degrees, positions now require master’s degrees, or P.H.D.s. Whereas, in the past, obtaining your bachelor’s set you apart, now it simply shows that you’ve done the bare-minimum.)
But There’s Hope
The answers are coming, not from our traditional educational systems, but from outside sources. People are stepping in to help – people like Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, who one day realized that there had to be a better way to teach his son about a dynamic force like electricity than by looking at static images in a book. He founded Curriki, a global community of educators, professionals, and volunteers of all types that all come together, sharing their experience and time, trading ideas, expertise, and advice to create challenging curricula for students and then delivering the tools and resources to fulfill those goals.
The gifted students who are bored with the coursework assigned to them in class can now explore advanced applications of the basics their class is learning by taking online college courses or watching talks given by individuals at the cutting edge of their respective fields, like speakers at the T.E.D. conferences. Conversely, students who require a slower pace and more reinforcement in order to learn the basics can now explore multiple ways of learning the material and they may find that one or another method or teacher is better able to shed light on principles they were having trouble grasping.
Companies like Wikipedia and OpenOffice are making information and programs available to students who can’t afford to buy an up-to-date encyclopedia or the latest word processing or spreadsheet software. Instant messaging programs like Yahoo and MSN Messenger provide not just free text-chat capabilities, but also free voice chats and whiteboard integration in order to better illustrate the points being discussed. With this technology, students can help each other with their homework or ask volunteer homework helpers across the state or country to explain it to them. Online interactive resources, like those found at Curriki, help those same students by showing them visually how plate tectonics cause earthquakes or how exactly to balance an equation. In this way, everyone can enjoy the same resources that the more financially-privileged school districts do.
The benefits don’t end at a high school level, however. For graduates eager to set themselves apart, there are thousands of science, business, and arts projects that are looking for volunteers to help them accomplish their goals. In return for their time, students receive experience in solving real-world problems and receive training and mentorship from some of the most brilliant minds on the planet. Those needing to stand out from the pack can teach themselves a new language by downloading full audio courses for free from iTunes and studying grammar online at dozens of free websites. In order to practice their skills in the real world, they can use a social networking site like Ning to make friends with graduates or college students in other countries that will help them practice their new languages via messages and free international Skype calls.
Becoming multi-lingual is one way to make you more attractive to a prospective employer, another is having a more diverse education than today’s ultra-specific university programs offer. More and more, companies are looking for employees that can bring expertise in several complimentary fields to the table, who can see their problems with fresh eyes. Diversifying your education provides that. And it couldn’t hurt your chances that you’ve taken a few classes from top educators at Johns Hopkins or MIT, could it?
The path of self-education isn’t lonely. Social interaction and networking are vital in most fields and important parts of anyone’s education. It is easy to find groups of people who share your interests and whom who you can learn from. Social networking sites, discussion boards, and newsgroups are great ways to discuss new developments, meet others in your field, and ask for help. Websites like MeetUp get large groups of professionals and amateurs together to offer support and guidance and stimulate creativity. Writers can meet up with fellow writers to share ideas and ask for help with specific weaknesses in their work and runners can get together with fellow athletes for games or workouts.
Artists, photographers, and designers looking for inspiration and constructive criticism of their work can publish galleries of their work on Flickr and DeviantArt and listen to the critiques and encouragement of fellow artists and art professionals. Many of today’s top advertising companies have hired on artists to work for them after seeing their online portfolios.
Blogs are letting people present their thoughts and musings about various topics online and the discussions taking place on some of these are incredibly stimulating and important. The world’s policy-makers, CEOs, artists, and leaders are already sharing their thoughts with us. Imagine what could happen by listening to them, learning from them, and beginning a dialogue with your own suggestions and solutions. It is the dawn of symbiotic learning.
Our educational system has long been criticized for its chronic inability to adapt to the world around it. It is sad that it has taken major change in other fields, such as politics or technology, to cause it to re-evaluate itself and recognize the need for change. The past two decades have proven again and again that more efficient and engaging ways of teaching exist and that they are inexpensive and easily accessible to the public.
It Has Begun
Education is changing at its core. A paradigm shift has begun, as more and more tools are delivered to students empowering them to take control of their own educations. They can dig deeper into the areas that interest them and work on their weaknesses. They can find teachers, professors, and resources that suit their learning style, making more efficient use of their time, and inspiring them to pursue their own educations long after traditional schooling has come and gone.
The keys to learning are no longer found in where you were born or how much money your parents make – now, more than ever, knowledge truly is power. Knowing where and how to find these resources gives us the power to tap into them and benefit from them. Soon the quality of the education each of us receives will be completely up to the student.
Alan Cohen once said, “It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.” This is the time for change.
Here is a list I’ve compiled for those interested in the resources I’ve talked about in my article:
Free Educational Internet Resources List