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Education reform: we need robust debate

BooksI strongly support the move to more open education and the need to critique the role that educational institutions play within society. But some of the debate seems to lack any real rigour.  For example, the UnCollege Manifesto seems well-intentioned but it doesn’t really present a strong argument. Take this recycled quote on its home page:

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library. Will Hunting

Now admittedly this is a quote from a fictional character, but if this somehow represents the uncollege.org approach, it’s problematic. It seems to me there are two possible reasons someone might express such a bleak sentiment:

  • The university they have experienced was no better than a pile of books or a one-way stream of information. I’m reminded of a catch-phrase from the 1980′s when the early adopters of computers in schools were confronted by teachers who thought their jobs might be lost. The response? ‘Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer ought to be’. Likewise, if a university could be replaced by a pile of books it should be.
  • They are under a misapprehension about the nature of a university. In that case, perhaps universities are failing to communicate what they really do?

UnCollege makes a show of espousing a radical approach: ‘join the learning revolution’ and ‘success … without setting foot inside a classroom’. But elsewhere the site belies this, such as the page on UnCollege’s two advisors which makes a point of highlighting their university qualifications. Proponents of ‘hacking’ the education system need to better acknowledge aspects of the education system, such as its role in awarding qualifications, if they want to have any real impact.

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