Spark

When information is freely available online, learning institutions are forced to change

The internet offers a huge amount of information, usually for free. So how has that affected the institutions we have traditionally learned from: our schools, colleges, and universities?
Peter Struck, Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania prepares to record a lecture on Greek Mythology for a "Massive Open Online Course," or MOOC, offered through a company called Coursera. (The Associated Press)
Listen to the full episode53:59

The internet allows us to find out almost anything we would ever want to know. From everyday tasks like how to sew a button or fix a dryer, to more complex pursuits, like music theory or moral philosophy. 

In the past, access to skills and information like that might from a variety of sources. Maybe from family, or through apprenticeships on the job, or through traditional educational institutions, like colleges or universities. 

So how has the internet affected these institutions?

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for NPR, and the author of DIY U. (NPR)

Ginie Servant-Miklos is an education theorist and senior lecturer at Erasmus University in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Speaking to Spark host Nora Young, Servant-Miklos said that the idea of self-education—learning from resources outside of traditional education—goes back to humanist educators working after the Second World War, inspired by existential philosophers.

"It was basically a reaction to authoritarian forms of education that were quite prevalent around the time that they were writing," Servant-Miklos said. "In essence, self-directed learning was advocating for a new model of education in which people could choose for themselves what mattered to them, and how they would go about studying it."

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for National Public Radio. In 2010 she published the book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, which covered some of the movements in self-education at the time.

One of the biggest trends were something called MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. "There were many people going out and saying, 'well, we've cracked the code'," Kamenetz said. "'We can replace universities with a playlist on iTunes. It's going to be free for everyone. We're going to discover geniuses… all over the world.' And very little of that has come to pass."

While self-education seems to offer many advantages—especially equal access across class and racial lines—it doesn't appear to be the all-in-one solution it promised.

Ginie Servant-Miklos is an education theorist and a senior lecturer at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. (Erasmus University)

"That's not how learning works," said Servant-Miklos.

"You'll have people that come from a background where academic thinking is the norm. They will thrive… And the people who are not from those backgrounds, they will struggle and they will be told it's their own fault. And that's the really pernicious thing about self directed learning. At the heart of the theory is that anyone who is given the freedom to learn will be able to self-actualize. And that is just not true."

While a lot of the discussion around open education and self-learning has focused on higher education, a lot of people turn to online resources to learn hands-on skills. Things like car repairs, or cooking instructions; skills typically learned from trade colleges or through apprenticeships.

So if open learning has failed to have the utopian effect promised by early proponents, how has it affected hands-on skills?

While self-directed learning doesn't generally provide the sorts of credentials that might be necessary to get a job, they can be useful for people looking to extend their knowledge and abilities.

Jennifer Green is the Director of Competitions and Young Women’s Initiatives at Skills Ontario, and an industrial mechanic/millwright. (Skills Ontario)

Jennifer Green is Director of Competitions and young women's initiatives at Skills Ontario, as well as an industrial mechanic-millwright.

"If you already are a licenced, skilled tradesperson, an online course is a great way to be able to jump in and learn something that's modern and new," Green said.   

"The technology field itself is really full of people who are self-learners," Kemanatz said, "because the programming language you learned as an undergraduate isn't necessarily going to serve you two or three years out, so you need to keep updating your knowledge." 

"Our drive had an error code on it," Green said. "I'd never worked on that drive before, but I knew how they worked. I jumped on Google and I found instructions that I was able to follow through videos and be able to get it back up and running again on site. Having that quick, easy, online thing not only saved us hundreds of dollars… and I was able to do it on site myself."