An Open-Source Web-Enabled Revolution in Education

The financialization of education, the coming implosion of State revenues, the indentured serfdom of "student loans" and the "end of work" era will enable a revolution within higher education.

Thanks to the financialization of the higher-education "industry," a traditional college education has become a gigantic financial liability as its value in the "end of work" era diminishes. Even as we recognize the value of a long, arduous, costly education to train doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers and research scientists, we have to ask: what about the rest of the workforce and citizenry who make up the vast majority of the working populace? Is traditional college really working for them?

As noted yesterday in The "End of Work" and the Coming Revolution in Education (June 7, 2011), a university degree has become a "necessary credential" for jobs within heirarchical bureaucracies such as the State (government) and Corporate America.

But together these behemoths employ at best 40% of the workforce, and the number of their employees is declining as governments face limits on new revenue in a declining economy and as Corporate America shifts its workforce to its overseas markets and production facilities.

In other words, indenturing yourself to the financial cartel for a credential may have little value for the 60% of the working populace who don't toil for the government or Corporate America.

The Education Cartel has the "solution": more costly education. The number and variety of expensive (and often marginal) graduate programs has exploded as the Education Cartel seeks to cash in on student anxiety about the future.

Nothing would please the Education Cartel more than a 2-year graduate degree becoming the "new undergraduate degree"--the minimum credential needed to "rise above the crowd."

But there aren't enough jobs in top-level research or international studies, etc., for the tens of thousands of people conned into seeking graduate degrees. Even a law degree, once a veritable license to print money, now has less-than-guaranteed value as the number of newly minted attorneys outstrips the number of positions for attorneys.

In my view, the real solutions lie completely outside the ossified, high-cost walls of the Education Cartel's fiefdoms, in entirely new models of education and credentialing. I can envision new innovative, dynamic models that leverage the Web and open source, opt-in trusted networks.

Correspondent D.S. (who has an advanced degree himself, as well as a number of children to think about) recently proposed such a new model of education:

Radical thought: why not create (amongst many noted authors/bloggers/like minded) a 'home college' curricula - an open architecture where noted folk record (via youtube or like) lectures, post lectionary and list requirements.

Those taking such classes can do so from anywhere via their mac or pc

What is lacking is means to 'test' .... which is solvable as there are independent business testing centers for such things as insurance & real estate license(s), etc.

I could see such a system mingling lectures online with apprenticeships so that those who desire to create a educational track within their company can 'show, do, teach.'

I could see this being a mix of 'freeware' and pay-for-view.

Of course, what many seek in 'attending' college is authoritarian seal-of-approval tacit endorsement via sheepskin.

This takes the University of Phoenix concept one step further.

As a business owner i'd gladly consider someone who demonstrated the initiative and persistence to complete 'home college' over a 4 year bacchanal degree in amateur pharmacology.

Creating 'home college' would be akin to Martin Luther nailing edicts to cathedral door placing powers (academia) on notice that their system is corrupt and slated for massive change.

As some of you know, M.I.T. has already posted a large number of lectures on the Web for anyone to view, and the Khan Academy has posted over 2,000 free video lessons online.

Correspondent Michael Goodfellow and I have had various discussions over the years here on the blog about the value of collaborative learning. Indeed, it can be argued that learning to learn with others is a dual education. While there is a unique value to learning on one's own, there are equally unique values to collaborative learning and apprenticeships with masters.

Just brainstorming on D.S.'s "radical thought," I would propose an apprenticeship "network" of trusted masters who would be willing to teach apprentices a defined set of working knowledge. The idea of trust has been at least partially freed from the monopoly grasp of institutional "experts." For example, you needn't place your trust solely in a book or restaurant review by a supposed "expert": you can read dozens of reviews on or Yelp to help your own assessment.

The "trust" we place in an expert need not be derived from a heirarchical institution; it could be drawn from public knowledge and the linked trust of those who have earned trust as disinterested and/or widely respected authorities on their subjects.

Here is an example of how this could work. Let's say someone wanted to learn "Web journalism." This field is so new it doesn't have a set curriculum; the curriculum adapts and grows with the Web itself. Nonetheless we can establish some basic elements that a Web Journalist should master. For example:

  1. Traditional journalistic tradecraft: assembling and checking sources, interviewing people from a spectrum of authority and self-interest, finding alternative sources of data to verify or contrast with "official" statistics, an ability to separate facts from opinion and self-interest, and other aspects of what might be called professional skepticism.
  2. The ability to write succinctly, another traditional skill.
  3. The technical knowledge to conduct, record and edit digital audio and video interviews and reports.
  4. An understanding of Web metrics, revenue streams, page ranking algorithms, etc.
  5. A basic knowledge of formatting content, both in native HTML and in standard text and graphics editor software.

The student/apprentice could select his/her teachers/Masters by looking at the teachers' own work and their standing within their own community of other experienced practitioners. (See yesterday's entry The "End of Work" and the Coming Revolution in Education for more on possible web-enabled verification/authentication innovations such as the Learning Graph + Reputation Graph.

In essence, the system would simply formalize an open-source network of authentification and reputation. Whose opinion about a restaurant might you value more: a recognized celebrity chef, a friend who loves to cook, or an anonymous poster on the Web? This is not to say you would ignore the anonymous post, but you would certainly calibrate its value.

Simply put: if someone identifies themselves as a teacher of web journalism, and they have built a site with a large audience that is admired by other recognized web journalists, that reputation is verified via the Web itself rather than some institution.

If a student came to me for training, they would be drawing upon my 22 years of independent journalism and my knowledge of native HTML and related web programming tools.

If they then went to work with my old friend Ian Lind at, then they would draw upon his years of investigative journalism and activism, and his success in attracting a core audience of influential readers.

If they spent a few weeks with my old friend G.F.B., then they would come away with the basics of audio and video editing from a master of Final Cut Pro with almost 40 years of experience in audio and video recording and editing.

If the "curriculum" included time spent both in online collaboration and actual onsite instruction with a variety of respected ("established reputation") teachers, then each teacher would issue a "credit." When the student earned sufficient credits, then they would be issued a credential backed by the reputations of the teachers.

Just as Page Rank weighs the "value" of links and content on a website, so this apprentice program would make use of the Reputation Graph of the masters. In other words, if I recommend someone as a teacher, and three other teachers with solid Reputation Graphs also recommended this same teacher, then they would provisionally be allowed to join the "guild."

It's always possible to "game the system" if the system depends on credentials that could be false, but the reputations of working professionals are not so easily gamed. There is nothing anyone can offer me that is worth more than my reputation for independent analysis, and that goes for the vast majority of professionals in any field.

You see where this leads: institutions have no place in this system, and no claim on $100,000 of debt to fund their fiefdoms. The apprenticeship "home college" would be formal in certain ways: the Reputation Graphs of the teachers/masters, the verification/testing of knowledge, the accumulation of collaborative work claimed and verified as the student's, and the accumulation of "credits" from time spent with teachers/masters would verifiable and transparent for all to see.

The rest of the system would be informal and open to adaptation and flexible arrangements. Some teachers might be able to pay a stipend for a few months, others would only be able to offer an unpaid internship/apprenticeship. The risks and costs to apprentices and students would be transparent.

If a student trained with bloggers like Mish and Tyler at Zero Hedge (to name but two respected financial bloggers), an experienced audio/video editor and an investigative journalist, and had collaborative and individual projects posted on the web as evidence of their skills, do you reckon this training and the resulting credential would have value to employers and collaborators? Of course it would, as it would have all the features we seek in education: a verifiable source of expertise, a verifiable curriculum and a verifiable result of that process (a test passed, work posted online, etc.).

With teachers' reputations on the line, it would be difficult to game the system. Anyone claiming to have studied with me, for example, could be checked with a quick email to me. The value of their course and apprenticeship would be visible in their work.

"Getting an A" would no longer be the goal, and such a concept would have no meaning. The only meaning is what the student actually learned and what he/she knows how to do in the real world, or knows about the real world.

A student could assemble a number of these credentials. When young people write me asking for advice, I tell them I earned two degrees in college: the four-year B.A. and an equivalent education in the building trades, as I worked my way through college. (The workaholic always has the advantage of doing twice as much as the conventional path allows.) A student could pursue a classic liberal arts degree from one set of teachers/masters, and another in web journalism or beer making, bee-keeping, cabinetry, biochemistry, etc.

The student would have to earn enough to keep body and soul together, but such a system of validated apprenticeships would very likely lead fairly quickly to skills with some market value. That income could then enable the pursuit of a liberal arts or scientific course of study.

I see no need for a Corporate Education Cartel in this system at all, nor a Central State. A modest fee from participants could fund the verification and credentialing processes. A basic website would be enough for teachers to log in and issue an apprentice/student their credit and verify the completion of a transparent curriculum.

Over-reaching, bloated State institutions obsessed with self-preservation will implode as revenues drop below their high-cost minimum funding levels, and the inevitable implosion of the corrupt and venal system of indentured debt-serfdom known as "student loans" will doom the "for profit" Corporate Education Cartel. The field is wide open for innovation in real education, and the Web can enable it.

Worth pondering:

"The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things--the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit." (Samuel Johnson)

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."
(Eric Hoffer)

"In times of change, learners will inherit the earth."
(Eric Fromm)

"You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good person will resist an evil system with his or her whole soul.
(Mahatma Gandhi)

"Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation."
(Marshall McLuhan)

"There is no security on this earth; there is only opportunity."
(Douglas MacArthur)

"We are what we repeatedly do."

"Chance favours the prepared mind."
(Louis Pasteur)

"Do the thing and you shall have the power."
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Source: Of Two Minds

About the Author

csmith [at] oftwominds [dot] com ()