Knocking the Bricks Out of the Wall – Virtually

by Staff Writers

Yesterday's post outlined the history of education in America and the role that the Industrial Revolution had in shaping the system as it is today. While the industrial model of education is efficient and fairly effective at fulfilling its intended purpose, that purpose no-longer fits with the society we live in. Our Information Age economy requires innovative and creative thinkers in order to remain competitive in a global economy where cheap labor costs have moved a majority of manufacturing jobs outside of the United States. An education system that continues to spew forth cookie-cutter factory workers through standardized curricula and testing might as well be making bricks. Online education is one change in education that fits the needs of the Information Age and can break out of the factory model we currently employ.

How Online Education Breaks the Bonds of Mass-Production
The Information Age represents a wholesale change from the way our society functioned during the Industrial Age. Wealth is now largely equated with having and disseminating information rather than with controlling the means of material production. Communication and technological advances move at a dramatically accelerated pace. Social life happens largely in and because of virtual interactions. And knowledge and information are available instantaneously and in nearly any location. We are even beginning to see a movement towards breaking education out of control of schools and universities and beyond the walls of the classroom. Virtual learning facilitates this process by being:

  • Informal
  • Individualized
  • On demand
  • Democratic

Informal Education
The formal structure of the factory school – straight rows of silent children moving in lockstep through the system – is completely undermined by the informal nature of online learning, where each individual creates a structure that best supports their learning. This less-structured process, even in university-based classes, is supplemented by the wide variety of things that can be learned informally online. With initiatives such as digital badges and game-based education being given serious consideration as a way of quantifying and validating informal learning, it may be only a short time before there comes a tipping point in education in which informal learning is the norm rather than the exception.

While strictly informal learning options are not yet recognized as on par with offerings from a university, there is still much that can be learned on the Internet, and that may be formally recognized sometime soon. Pick a topic and you can find how-to sites and videos that will teach you what you need to know. Here are some of the best places to search for informal options to give you the skills to excel in the Information Age:

  • YouTube – Look at the "Education" section for videos of formal learning such as academic lectures, or check out the "How To" section for more informal offerings.
  • eHow – Everything from cooking to personal finance.
  • wikiHow – For those who not only want to learn, but help create and share knowledge.
  • howstuffworks – Technical knowledge sponsored by Discovery.
  • diy Network – For the home improvement-minded.
  • howy – Experts from around the world provide the information here on a wide variety of topics.
  • Howcast – Provides some more entertainment-focused video "learning" opportunities such as belly dancing.
  • Vimeo – Check out their "Education/DIY" section for some useful video learning.
  • TED: Ideas worth spreading – Video archives of high-powered individuals sharing their visions for the future of technology and science.

Individualized Education
One thing that the Internet allows to happen exceptionally well is for each user to craft an individual experience. From returning different results based on entering slightly different search terms, to presenting information to individuals based on their needs, interests, and past experiences, the Web offers an individualized experience for everyone. Future advancements such as semantic web technology, when combined with the wealth of educational content available online, and initiatives like digital badges, present the possibility that each and every person could have a unique educational experience which fits their interests and aspirations better than ever before. Some of the ways in which education will become radically individualized in the future include:

  • Customizing course content for individual learners
  • Customizing presentation of information to accommodate different learning styles
  • Customization of textbooks to account for previous knowledge and individual interests
  • Customizable assessments based on current and past educational experiences

In these ways and others, the individual will return to the center of the learning process, making the journey more important than the specific outcome. Outcomes will become far less well-defined, focusing on an individual's ability to learn and innovate rather than conform and meet specific benchmarks.

On-Demand Learning
We live in a connected world in which people expect to have seamless access to information in any context and at any time. The proliferation of distance learning and the prevalence of informative content on the Internet allow individuals to pursue either formal or informal learning at any time and in any place that they choose. This is a distinct break from the factory model of education where a major component of the curriculum was to socialize people to fit in to a structured work model. There are no bells that signify when to change classes or eat in online learning, rather, the autonomy of the individual rules.

Democratization of Education
The on-demand nature and significantly reduced cost of virtual learning means that any individual, from any racial, ethnic, or social background has equal access to higher education and all of the benefits associated with it. While a free public primary and secondary education has long been part of American society, free or even affordable higher education has not. The debate about the cost and value of a college degree is front and center in our society and online learning is one possible way of addressing the affordability issue and making higher education accessible to a wider-range of people.

Initiatives such as University of the People, P2PU, OpenCourseWare Consortium, and Open Learning Exchange all employ a crowdsourcing model to some extent to make learning freely accessible to the widest possible array of individuals. This informal, low or no-cost education can begin to move people beyond the constraints of our industrial past by allowing them to pursue knowledge and opportunities in any field they feel inclined to, including innovative new areas.

Looking to the Future
While yesterday's post that focused on the history of American education was fairly pessimistic in its assessment of where the future lies, the process of cataloguing the ways in which online education is already breaking down the Industrial Age education system actually inspires hope that we are quickly moving towards a re-thinking of a system in which the individual matters. Not as a raw material, but as a serious contributor to a brighter future for all. Individuality and innovation are the keys, and they are two of the things that online education does very well. 


Image: bulldogza /