Saturday, September 8, 2012

Higher Learning


Pick a professional career. Almost any will do. Now really take a moment to visualize how their job is done today - their tools, their projects, all sorts of the stuff that's required by their fields.

Now think about that same profession 300 years ago. Any chance it's changed?

Doctors have progressed from prescribing urine baths and bloodletting to minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgery. Engineers have moved from catapults to Mars rovers, and law enforcement has gone from corrupt court systems to advanced forensics (in most countries, at least). These and other similar advances have been undeniably amazing, and are largely responsible for our currently quality of life.

Sadly, though, one particularly glaring profession has been dragging its heels against this rapid change. Despite the enormous advances over the last hundreds of years, university education has been largely unchanged. For some reason, an overwhelming majority of university classes are still taught by packing vast numbers of students in a theater and being talked to for an hour. Tweed jackets have come and gone, and the use of powerpoint may have sped things up, but by and large the methods used to teach are virtually unchanged.

Courses are still taught largely by talking at students, assigning readings and homework, and then giving grades based on exams. Exams themselves are still mostly just forcing students to cram material for a couple days beforehand, then stuffing students in a room for two hours and making them answer random questions about the previous forty hours of lecture.

Why is this still the standard? How likely is it that, of all professions, how we teach people more or less peaked three hundred years ago? Why is it that the most common way of judging how well someone has learned is to cram them into a room and force them to recite things, and why on earth should the grading that results from that two hour test be worth up to 70% of their grade? The case has been made before that universities should get students focusing on learning how to learn, instead of what often seems to be the focus of getting students learning how to write exams, and I totally agree.

There have been some pretty exciting developments in expanding education options recently, though. For example, the Khan Academy has more than 3,300 video lessons and interactvie exercises covering math all the way from preschool arithmetic to first-year calculus, which are free for anyone to take. The Academy also covers basic sciences, humanities, and finance.

If that isn't what you're looking for, why not learn a language? The BBC offers free courses on all the major European languages, and essential phrases for 40 languages. If you're interested in something less structured, free lecture videos on hundreds of topics can be found anywhere online to anyone who's really interested.

What's particularly cool, though, are the opportunities that are becoming available for a more formalized education. Recently, three of the biggest names in education (MIT, Berkeley, and Harvard) joined together to offer advanced university courses for topics ranging from solid state chemistry to artificial intelligence. These even offer 'certificates of completion' - certainly worth putting on a resumé, even if they don't have quite the same weight as an official transcript. Registration for the courses is open right now, and I strongly suggest you take a look at what's being offered.

The advantage of this new-found variety in fairly high-level education options is that it may (hopefully) end up pushing the envelope for education options in universities. Many post-secondary programs are starting to allow more open-ended education, such as the option to learn by correspondence or online, and with so much knowledge so freely available we may yet see a change in the 'classical' approach to lectures.

And for those of you who truly are here to learn how to learn, I strongly suggest taking a look at some of the links - I can guarantee there's something out there you'll find fascinating.

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