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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Education. While it’s easy to detest when you’ve got six assignments due in the next two weeks and about 500 readings to get through, it’s a pretty important aspect of life as we know it. Nelson Mandela once said that an education is the most powerful weapon with which we can change the world. Most of us are students, voluntarily paying thousands of dollars to further our knowledge, and thus have some semblance of agreement with that statement. However, in the world today there are about one billion non-literate adults; one billion people who do not have the opportunity that we do have to not only better their own lives, but also the world in which they live.

But maybe, just maybe, this will not always be the case. A revolution has begun, and it is changing the way that we learn and redefining who has the right and the capacity to be educated.

The internet.

The idea that the web is changing the way in which the world functions is not novel, but looking at what it could do to the future of education is exciting, and stands as a beacon of hope in a future which has the potential to in other ways be very bleak. It is also not just theory – a wistful musing of what could be – the first steps have already been taken, and a trail into an improved future for education begun to be blazed.

One of the pioneers of this new reality is educational researcher Dr Sugata Mitra. In 1999, Mitra and his fellow researchers put a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi. Into this, they installed an internet-connected computer. Over the period in which the computer was left in the wall, children from the slum played with it, and in the process of doing so they learnt how to use it; going online and then teaching each other.

Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments showed that children have the capacity to learn even without supervision or formal teaching. Instead, when motivated by curiosity and peer interest, and when presented with a tool like the internet, they can teach themselves and each other. Mitra calls this “minimally invasive education”.

When the results of this experiment are applied to tertiary students, it suggests a new, more accessible path that education has the potential to take. If people have the capacity to learn and teach each other without university infrastructure, without professors and lectures and tutorials, does this indicate a far cheaper means of gaining an education? If all it takes is a PC in a broken-down wall in an Indian slum for children to become computer literate, then surely this means that young adults have the ability to learn in courses that are made affordable and widely available by the internet.

George Mason University professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok believe that people can indeed learn outside of university walls, launching MRUniversity, a free online education project. Set up with minimal costs, and made available to everyone with an internet connection, the professors aim to make wealth no longer a prerequisite for an education.

“[People] don’t have to pay $50,000 a year to Harvard,” says Cowen: “you can go online and get something for free.”

“Education is changing rapidly, and we want to go to our graves feeling we were on the right side of history, so to speak.”

Of course, there are major hurdles to be crossed before this utopian future of education is realised. For one thing, in the world we live in today it is not enough to merely have an education – one must have the piece of paper that proves it. At the end of the day, that piece of paper is what we are paying for here at university. We could sit in on all the lectures we wanted to for free, but we pay thousands of dollars to have a certificate that says “I am capable” to employers because to simply be capable is not enough.

Obviously, nothing happens overnight, and not everyone is open to change. Before universities as we know them make way for a new future of virtual learning, the concept of what it means to be educated needs to evolve. This will undoubtedly be met with opposition from those for whom the current reality of education works – such as bricks-and-mortar universities who profit from the current requirement for a ‘qualification’. No doubt the changed future of education will be a drawn-out evolutionary process, rather than an immediate alteration. Maybe we won’t live to see a world in which everyone has at their fingertips an education, and thus the ability to make the world a better place. But among so many tidings of degradation and destruction in our futures and the futures of our children, the fact that something as important as education might actually get better is hopeful indeed.

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