Monday, August 24, 2009

The future of knowledge and education?

The Christian reconstructionist author Gary North, who's published many articles and books, poses an intriguing vision of the future dissemination of knowledge, and the means of learning, in two articles on

His first article, Wikipedia And Google Will Bring Down Establishments All Over The World, examines how knowledge has been disseminated traditionally, and shows how technology is changing that. An excerpt:

It is possible to have a book scanned and converted to a Google-searchable PDF file for 16 cents a page if you allow the outfit to cut the spine of the book. It's 36 cents if you don't allow this. You can set up a website for $10 a year for domain name hosting, plus an extra $10 if you want your identity as the owner concealed from snoopers. Use Hostgator or Hostmonster to host an unlimited number of domains for $8 a month. You can post PDFs.

In every language these books will be online. They will eventually be translated digitally "on the fly."

Then will come archive collections of letters. They will take longer to convert to searchable typeset words. But that day will come.

The cost of writing history will fall. It is costly to do research in a major research library. You must pay for the plane fare, overnight housing, and a rental car. This can easily cost $300 a day – or three times that in cities like London or Berlin. Only a few people can afford this, and only for short visits.

If the library's pre-1923 books and archive materials were online, anyone could do it at home. The little guy would be able to compete.

Say that you want access to all academic journals. These are all on-line. It is expensive to access them. You must be an enrolled student or a faculty member to access them. Solution? Hire a student intern who has on-line access to the library. Then have the student look up the articles you want to read and send PDFs to you. Or just use his access code to do your own research. "That's cheating," says the librarian. But taxpayers pay for the library. I suffer little guilt.

Every time you find a Google link to a locked article on JSTOR, you contact your intern. Presto. Unlocked!

Some interns work for free to gain college credit. Do I have access to such an intern? To ask this question is to answer it.

Soon, brains and insight will rule, not bank accounts and official accreditation by state licensing bureaus. The Establishments will all be in defensive mode.

It is happening today. This is going to increase.

Truth will fragment. New paradigms will emerge from the competition. The quality of thought will improve when bank accounts are not major barriers to entry.

The gatekeepers can no longer control the flow of information. This has never happened in man's history. Gatekeepers still control the gates. But the walls have holes in them. These holes are widening.

The gatekeepers control accreditation. They no longer control content except where it is very expensive to do primary research, such as nuclear physics. In the social sciences and humanities, it's just about over.

There's more at the link.

In a second article, M.I.T. Calls Academia's Bluff, he examines the future of university-level education. An excerpt:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun the most revolutionary experiment in the history of education, stretching all the way back to the pharaohs. It now gives away its curriculum to anyone smart enough to learn it. It has posted its curriculum on-line for free. These days, this means a staggering 1900 courses. This number will grow.

This is proof to the academic world that MIT regards its program as the best, and dares any other institution to prove otherwise, where everyone can see and compare. The free site validates the MIT T-shirt: "HARVARD: Because not everyone can get into MIT."
. . .

MIT has up-ended several millennia of higher education. Let me explain.

For as long as there have been priesthoods, there has been formal classroom education.

. . .

This is what the college diploma has always done. It has created a guild that restricts entry by non-certified people. This keeps wages high.

To obtain the diploma, a person must pay money to the trainers. The trainers are located at one center or special regional centers. Journeying to the center adds costs. Quitting a full-time job back home also adds to the expense. Forcing students to attend pre-requisites adds to the cost. Everything is done to screen access to the knowledge.

So, the knowledge does not spread. This is the crucial function of the academic screening system, especially for practical knowledge: healing people and building things.

For the first time in the history of man, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has opened the gates to all comers. It has said, "You won't get certified by us, but you can get the classroom knowledge. If you are smart enough to teach yourself, you will have the knowledge."

MIT has now removed the most important layers of bureaucracy: the layers associated with classroom instruction.

1. The fee to obtain the training
2. The cost of journeying to a training center
3. The pre-requisite system
4. The cost of quitting your job

This has de-mystified the entire guild procedure. It says this: "If you are smart enough, you can master the initial content."

. . .

The next step in the liberation of society is the introduction of certification by examination without diplomas. There would no requirement to attend a school. Just pass the exam.

This terrifies every guild. Smart people could get in just by passing the guild's entry-level exam.

The ultimate breakthrough would be a requirement that every certified member of a guild would be required to pass the guild's entry exam every five years or else lose his official license to practice. That would mean the end of exams that screen for wage reasons rather than for technical reasons. The members would demand easier exams, so that they could pass. More students would pass. Wages would decline.

Finally, there would be a removal of state-chartered systems of professional licensing. It would not be illegal to sell any services at any price.

Combine these, and the bureaucratization of society would end.

If you think, "This is utopian," consider this: MIT has removed the crucial initial layer, which imposes the greatest financial burden.

A student in India who understands English and who has access to the Web can get an MIT education.

If other universities imitate MIT, the world of higher education will be radically changed for the better.

. . .

Parents who send their children off to Podunk College are behind the technological curve.

First, about half of college freshmen don't graduate, even after six years. Second, those who do graduate enter a job market in which only 20% of graduates can find a non-minimum wage job.

The graduates are four to six years older, minimally educated, have no full-time work experience, and have forfeited four to six years of income. I call this "formally certified stupidity." What would you call it?

A college could easily provide free on-line guides to passing the Advanced Placement, CLEP, and DSST exams to quiz out of the first two years. Total cost: under $2,000 for the exams. That would save parents at least $60,000. The school would provide conservative guidelines for free on-line in PDF. It would also provide free YouTube or video courses.

If the school were interested in educating people, it would do all this. But Podunk College is interested in selling accredited degrees at above-market rates. It is not interested in educating people.

. . .

Could a college make its money by teaching upper division courses on-line for 25% of today's tuition – $5,000 a year instead of $20,000 – with no room and board costs? Yes. Will any of them do this? Of course not. Why not? Because they are in debt up to their ears for educationally unnecessary real estate. They adopted a technologically defunct model before the Web.

Again, there's more at the link.

North makes compelling arguments. Certainly, looking at the average American university student, I can't think of a single one who wouldn't benefit from the system he advocates.

I have personal experience to back this up. I hold four University qualifications - every one of them obtained through distance education and/or part-time study. I could never afford to attend university full-time. Are my degrees of lower quality than those obtained by full-time students? Like hell they are! I worked as hard, if not harder, to earn them: and because I was investing my scarce time and money in them, and working while studying to be able to afford them, I valued the educational experience rather more highly, I think.

I strongly recommend reading both of the above articles in full, at the links provided. They offer a great deal of food for thought, particularly if you're a student, or have children who are or will be students.



Jim March said...

One of the classic real-world examples of something like this was the fight between Clayton Cramer and Bell-liar over "Arming America". Clayton the outsider took down a major academic insider with tenure.

At least some of Clayton's techniques were right in line with this, esp. the online editions of things like the Congressional Record, Washington's papers, etc.

That aside, Clayton IS formally trained in the traditional manner in history, to some degree (pardon the pun). So Clayton's win can be seen as a "transitional event" heading towards this future, rather than "this is here now in full bloom".

It's pretty damn close though.

MadRocketScientist said...

Bear in mind that I have a Master's Degree in Engineering from a major Engineering College as I write this.

I do agree with some of what the gentleman above said, except for a few things.

One - A formal classroom education is more than just learning material, it's also a chance for people to learn how to work together and collaborate, as well as a chance to pick the brains of persons who are often considered master's in their fields, along with the chance to conduct lab and field work vital to the learning process. The University System, although old and antiquated, endures not just because it controls information. It is a proven method of disseminating knowledge.

Two - Just because the material is out there does not mean a student will learn it. Most young people do not have the self-discipline to engage in self-directed study. Hell, most young people don't have the self-discipline to pay attention in a class that someone paid a considerable amount of money for. The likelihood of legions of people suddenly learning the material equivalent to a Bachelors Degree from MIT and thus driving a paradigm shift in the educational system, and thus the professional system, is slim.

Could people use online materials to self-educate the first two years of a basic college education? Sure, and people might even find a way to accurately test for those skills (i.e. tests comprehensive enough to ensure proficiency without being gameable - think GMAT or GRE), but I think you'll find that most such persons will be older and more experienced, the quinessential adult student.

Finally, his bit about hiring a student to access Journals is not just a bad idea, it also violates laws and contracts, especially if the knowledge is used in a commercial venue. The student could get kicked out of school for violating his usage agreements with the University, and the University, along with the Journal publishers, can sue the person who hired the student for civil damages and press for criminal charges (my wife is a corporate librarian, she deals with Journal subscription contracts and copyright law all day long).

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the post above. Part of the engineering cirriculum I took was simply training engineers to learn to think in a certain way to teach problem solving and analysis. I don't know how easy or hard that would be to test for if someone did it all online.

My other thought is that I needed help fully understanding a many of the concepts we were taught. I guess that can be done online, but it would be more difficult.

I do like the idea of making it available. If anything, it would give someone the opportunity work on the basics before tackling the class.


STxAR said...

Mad Rocket negated his second point:

Two - Just because the material is out there does not mean a student will learn it. Most young people do not have the self-discipline to engage in self-directed study. Hell, most young people don't have the self-discipline to pay attention in a class that someone paid a considerable amount of money for.

I saw this when I was in college, mommy and daddy paying for school, and junior talking during class. I was a crotchety old married student at 26, and didn't have time to put up with that. Besides, I was paying my own way, with a wife and 2 kids along for the ride.

The desire for us older college types is something that needs to factor in to the equation. You showed diligence to get the distance learning, and that is what this is all about. Desire is a valid and strong motivation. And if the young puke is happy playing video games and working at pizza palace, then that leaves a spot for me to fill.

This is amazing info, and really shows the times, they be a-changing!!!

Thanks for the article.

MadRocketScientist said...


I was referencing two different demographics, the first being undisciplined youth, the second being a more mature demographic. The vast majority of college students are of the first demographic, and unless that majority shifts to the second demographic, the status quo will be maintained.

Also, my point about certain technical degrees is still valid, not every profession can be learned online. Physical Sciences, Engineering, Bio-Sciences, collaborative arts (e.g. music), etc require lab space where students can come together to learn hands on, and from each other.