Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shining a Light on the Syllabus

In my last post, I focused on the problems caused by the low status of students in the tradition of schools, and the way the arbitrary nature of the Druid-influenced graduation ceremony has contributed to this. Another bizarre quality in the tradition of schools is the relative secrecy in which they operate. In particular, if you are not a student in a class or its instructor, it traditionally is virtually impossible for you to get any accurate information on what goes on in the class.

The Internet, however, is changing this. It is shining a light on the educational process that wasn’t there before. Most colleges and universities post their course catalogs online for the public to look at. The requirements of degree programs are also typically posted online, in enough detail that you can guess what courses you would take to complete the degree program. Then, for each individual course, there is an excellent chance that you can find a syllabus for the course posted online, if not from the same college, then from a different one. The syllabus tells you in relatively specific terms what you need to study and learn to complete the course.

Armed with this information, you could simulate an entire college education at home, or wherever in the world you happened to be. That’s not to say that it would be easy to do. A college student who is thorough about his or her studies may spend 15 hours a week on a college course — 3 hours in class, and 4 times that in reading and assignments. Multiply that by 5, for the usual five courses in a semester, and that’s 75 hours a week. Do that for the 120 weeks of a traditional college education, and you’re talking about a major time commitment. It would take at least as much time to study the same material without the benefit of a college. A student would need a lot of self-discipline to stick with this approach. Yet the idea of saving $150,000 to $300,000 — the price of a small house — can be a powerful motivating idea, especially for someone who doesn’t have a realistic chance of putting that kind of money together.

I believe we have reached the point where a student who has more self-discipline than money should not be looking for a college loan, but for a support system that would enable them to study without paying for the overhead of a college.

To make this easier, I believe it would make sense for the U.S. government or educational charities to take $100 million or so out of student loan spending, and spend this instead on online instructional materials for the benefit of students who, even with the availability of loans, cannot afford to go to college. For $100 million, you could create a huge amount of instruction materials — movies, readings, quizzes, and more — covering basically the entire college curriculum. These materials could be distributed online, year after year, at a trivial cost, and not just to the United States, but to anyone in the world who could find Internet access. Yet this amount of money is a drop in the bucket compared to what is spent on colleges every year.

To be sure, many students, perhaps most, need the structured environment of a college to maintain their focus on what they are studying. Yet this is not a reason to ignore the millions of students who could guide themselves through their own education, if given a token level of support and encouragement.