Friday, 11 November 2011

The Value in a Piece of Paper

Steve Jobs, his passing and legacy
Khan Academy
Ted Talks
Wimp & Dump
Online AQ Courses
Online high school credits
Open Courseware

What do all of these have in common? They are all sources of educational inspiration for me over the past two months.
I've been wondering about the future, both for my children and for myself. What sort of education do we need? What will we be doing with our lives next year? 5, 10, 20 years from now?

The discussion nearly always turns to university education--which school, which program is the best choice to match interests and aptitudes?

As you may have discerned from previous posts, we are a homeschooling family--actually, we are unschoolers (perhaps not radical unschoolers, but unschoolers nonetheless). Much of the material we access comes from online sources. We are very fortunate to have a wealth of free, accessible resources at our fingertips. This was not possible 20 years ago.

Steve Jobs was brave enough to realize that much of his prescribed (and exceedingly expensive) education was irrelevant to him. So he cherry picked his way through, saving time, money and frustration to invent his own learning path.

Doing so is much easier now than ever, yet many of us balk at the thought of taking such responsibility for our learning. I will admit that I also find the thought a little dizzying. I loved my university years and would trade them for nothing. Well, my undergrad years anyhow.

And yet...

One of the things I'm considering doing as a second career requires university level math courses. To take these costs a total of about $3200, and that comes before the actual course itself. For a homeschooling mom, that is a lot of money.
And then I read the fine print: I could opt to sit a mathematical aptitude test for a cost of just $50 and have those requirements waived. Well, math has never been my strong point, but I do have a casual interest in it, so I occasionally pick up a book, or visit a website, or view a video on a topic within math. Still, I struggled with grade 12 math, so how could I possibly cope with more advanced material?

I took the practice test just for fun.

I received an 80%. Not wonderful, but enough to meet their requirements with some room to spare. And, thanks to YouTube and Khan Academy, I have since brushed up on the weaker areas now too. I guess since I was doing it out of interest and at my own pace, I really took in more than I'd realized.

It goes that way for most subjects in my experience. Developmental psychology was relevant when I could watch young relatives reaching developmental milestones, acquiring language, and growing in body, mind and spirit. Statistics and research design only became relevant when I began doing my own research. Physics became interesting when it began to describe things beyond the everyday. And so on. The motivation follows the need.

So I'm wondering now, what is the relevance of that heralded degree, SAT scores or other similar external validation in regard to education? Is the fact that our education systems are loaded with standardized curriculum & tests in actuality a reaction to the coming of the information age? Will the validating papers (certificates, diplomas, degrees) be replaced with something better, more customized and relevant? Will post-secondary level education become universally available?

Will we find our post-secondary institutions becoming places where only the hands-on, experiential "lab-based" courses (labs, medical courses, musical performance, teaching, fine art, etc.) need be taught, with the remaining resources dedicated to research?

Or, will we continue to follow the status quo and only value education that is expensive and exclusive? There is a great deal of potential here to educate most people to a higher level than previously imagined, for a small fraction of the cost.

How will we measure this? How will we value all relevant learning? How do we learn to value & encourage creativity and original thinking? These are the challenges we face.

Edit: I found this article today which tackles the possibilities of online education as a tool for educators: