Yesterday I speculated that the open source model in the software world is going to undermine the basic delivery system for higher education in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere). Today I want to consider what, exactly, a transformed system of education might look like.
What is the purpose of the college degree? It seems to me that there are several: to provide some assurance that the degree holder has mastered some body of knowledge (at least as much as we would expect from four years of college); to provide access to a more or less privileged elite called the alumni; and to provide a convenient stopping point on the way to even greater mastery of some body of knowledge. College has to end at some point, so why not after 120 credits?
There are many impediments making it difficult to complete those 120 credits and one of the chief problems that students complain about is the fact that “My university doesn’t offer a course in X” or, in the same vein, “I need to take Latin American nationalism before I graduate, but Professor Y is on leave this whole year!”
So imagine an open source solution to either of these problems. The weary student, trying desperately to graduate on time, finds out that Princeton, or Stanford, or the University of Missouri-Rolla offers that course in X that she needs, or that Professor Y’s PhD adviser is teaching a course on Latin American nationalism, and that these courses are available, in their entirety online–lectures, study guides, reading lists, paper assignments, the works.
So, our enterprising student goes to the chair of the history department and says, “I’ve found an open source solution to my problem.” Aghast, the department chair protests, “But you won’t have actually taken the class.”
But what if our enterprising student did everything for the class, including writing the papers, doing all the reading, watching all the lectures, etc., etc.? Couldn’t someone in the history department grade those papers? Maybe even give her an exam?
Or, alternatively, the history department might say to its majors that they needed to demonstrate mastery of some certain set of content and that they could do so in two ways: the traditional method of taking some number of history courses, or the open source method of acquiring a body of knowledge and being tested on it. If our enterprising student passes the history departments exam(s), then she earns her degree. If not, then it’s back to the books.
It’s a crazy idea, I know, largely because it’s such a blend of old school and new media. Once upon a time, not that long ago, before universities became knowledge guilds, students “read” a subject and were examined on it. If they passed, they graduated. But “back in the day” (as my students are so fond of saying) readers in history at University X were limited to the professors who taught there. Tomorrow’s students will have access to a virtually unlimited number of professors.
It’ll never work, right?
Ah, but it does. I think it’s safe to say that the legal profession is pretty conservative when it comes to professional qualifications. But four states (California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) allow would-be attorneys to take the bar exam without ever having attended law school. Aspiring attorneys in those states have to “read the law” with a judge for some period of time, but then can take the bar and if they pass, they are attorneys.
So, it turns out my proposition is not so radical after all…All we need is a history department (and a university) willing to embrace open source education as an option, and our enterprising student can craft an amazingly exciting educational experience.