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Education unchained?

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Some time ago, I blogged about my idea of an education system that separated exams from learning and thereby allowed students to have more liberty in choosing how to get the classroom component of their education while earning their desired qualification. Today I learnt of MIT’s new fully automated course on circuits and electronics. MIT have run the open courseware project for a while now, but it was more of a reference point, where people could sample the lecture notes that MIT uses, but do not get credit for reading the notes or completing the exercises. This course however, offers a certificate for completion, which means that any person, anywhere in the world can now gain an MIT recognition of his/her skills from the comfort of their home.

Arguably, if this course gets a large enough market, someone may start a coaching class to help students understand the material. That would in essence be the separation of the classroom teaching component of education from the exam component, akin to what my old post suggested. Maybe those bright sparks at MIT were reading my blog, though I have my doubts about that.

A fully automated course is nevertheless something noteworthy. I am especially interested in how they handled the lab component. Do they purely use circuit simulators? do they plan to extend the idea in the future where there are accredited venues where students can go to complete the labs? Will the exams be purely multiple choice questions or have they devised a way to have computers grade exam papers? I have enrolled for it, so hopefully sometime in June (when the course ends), I will be able to proudly claim to have a certificate from MIT and also be able to report on my experiences.

While this new development has me excited about the direction education can take in this century,  I can think of a few undesirable implications of rolling out multiple courses or entire degrees through this avenue. Someday soon, I will put those thoughts down too.

Written by clueso

February 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Separating exams and learning.

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The UN has recently launched an online university named University of the people which aims to provide quality education at low (at least not too high) prices to anyone in the world who wishes to study. It is basically a university dealing with long distance education, with the difference being in the use of technology to make the learning completely internet based and more peer-to-peer rather than simply reading material based and completely internet based.

Such internet based universities are good news because they make access to education easier and cheaper, thereby increasing the number of people who can benefit from it. The structure of the university though prompts one to think that it is merely a translation of a bricks-and-mortar university into a virtual world and that maybe they could have done a tad bit more to improve their reach.

Whether one likes it or not, it is a fact of the world that in education, exams are more valued than the actual learning process. Consider a highly reputed university which we will call “A”. A student who gets admitted into university “A”, he really benefits from that attendance only if he manages to pass the exams and get the piece of paper that is his degree. If he had not passed the exams, then he might as well not have got admitted in the first place. For an external observer judging the student’s capabilities, it does not matter whether the student attended classes or completed assignments as long as he cleared the exams necessary for the degree. Therefore the exams are valued more than the learning process.

Similarly, for an external observer, there is no difference between a student who actually attended university “A” and got a degree and another who did not attend university “A” but nevertheless has the ability to pass the exams involved (maybe with a reasonable score). Restricting the exams to only those students admitted to Univ. “A” therefore forces some people to take great pains to attend that university or forces others to forego that opportunity and lose out on a great qualification just because circumstances do not permit them to attend.

That may be OK for traditional universities since their priority is to educate people from a certain country/state/region first and do it well. A university aimed at a global audience, with the aim of making access to education more democratic can benefit from a slightly different game plan, namely that of separating the teaching and the exams.

Consider University “A” again. If the people in charge of University “A” syllabus and exams sit down and think about it, they will probably be able to quantify some skills that each exams will test, such as “the student will be able to add two numbers” or “the student will be able to calculate permitted energy levels in a quantum well”. Suppose they released this information to the world and decided that for a fee, they will allow anyone who thinks they are capable to take the exams for that particular course/degree. The student can choose to attend “A”, or pay for long distance study material from University “A”, or decide to study at their local university and then answer the exams with the knowledge/skills gained.

There are many advantages of decoupling the learning and exams in this way. Firstly the financial commitment is reduced from having to pay for the whole course to just paying for the exams. Secondly, there is no need for anyone to immigrate to a new country/city/region as they can just as well study close to home and maybe travel simply to give the exams. Finally, it allows people to translate non-classroom based knowledge to a qualification which could benefit their careers.

The teaching part can easily be taken care of public/private institutions who will give it all they have to improve the quality of their lessons and exercises because their survival depends on it. The actual university on the other hand will be freed of some of its teaching load which would allow it to focus on designing good quality exams/assignments and syllabi.

This model is not really a new invention and has been running quite successfully in the arena of computer software certifications. The method works, so anybody interested in democratising education should not ignore it.

Written by clueso

June 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

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