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The Education Revolution

Big changes are afoot in education — humanities departments continue to close around the world while online courses are all the rage. Gerhard takes us through these developments and explains the thinking behind another increasingly popular phenomenon — the free university.

The Education Revolution

The internet is awash with talk of online education revolutions. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on mathematics related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided open courseware to select courses since 2002. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listened/watched to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

Last year a course on artificial intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, and Google’s director of research, Peter Norvig, attracted over 160,000 students from 190 countries. Subsequently they launched Udacity.com, which offers free online robotics and internet related courses.

there is a quality of engagement in personal contact and learning processes that these technologies cannot replicate.

Udemy.com allows anyone to start their own course, whereas other providers maintain some quality control, in terms of allowing only universities access. For instance, iTunesU, a part of the Apple family, podcasts university lectures, seminars and whole courses (the Melbourne Free University also podcasts there now), and Coursera.org offers a range of university courses run by a consortium started by Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, but now includes 33 global universities. edx is the newest MOOC (massive open online course), founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and focussing computer science and science courses in the first instance.

The defining aspect of this education revolution is technology and its power to make information and content available to ever more people at little or no cost. This is an important step in leveling the playing field in global education and the sharing of knowledge in times of globalization. Thus the opening up of the university gates to anyone with internet access is an important step in providing some equity to a system that is increasingly differentiated (and limited) by academic and monetary access. While fees increase for those students enrolled in a degree, many universities now offer individual courses for free.

But why would they do this? At a time when universities are increasingly run like a corporation and rationalizing their operations, in short when we are seeing the McDonaldisation of modern universities, why would universities give away their wares for free? One answer is in who is most active in the MOOC landscape. There are the Ivy League American universities with now a few global leaders from the UK and Australia. These universities are already global leaders and through their open access, free course offerings they can gain further reputational and branding value.

These large and affluent universities are able to corner the MOOC market by providing standardised platforms that later adopters will have to sign up to as well as receiving accolades and coverage in the media now for their (relative) small course offerings. In addition they can use the aggregated data from course participants to improve their other educational offerings.
Thus there are corporate reasons for this education revolution that makes it look less like a revolution and more like a sound business model. MOOCs are an investment in new global markets, engaging potential overseas students and reaching out to hitherto excluded or disengaged publics.

This is not to diminish the model and benefits of MOOCs. They are a great addition to the education landscape and their free offerings of university courses, lectures and materials enrich our lives academically. But there is something important missing in this type of education, which is the dynamic community of learners that extends beyond a mere learning space. Most MOOCs have few active participants out of a large cohort, making learning a largely individualized endeavor. New technologies have found some innovative ways of mitigating this, but there is a quality of engagement in personal contact and learning processes that these technologies cannot replicate.

Two years ago a small group of Melbourne based academics started a much smaller and less ambitious project – to bring free higher education to local residents in Melbourne. Thus our endeavor is more in line with the free schools/university movement of the 1960s than the technological transformations of online learning. Our principles and ideas are lodged more firmly in the present and the community within which we operate.

Being grounded is a good thing, because it allows us to be responsive to community needs and wishes but it is also a limiting factor. Our courses are available in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, our intellectual and physical home, and thus limits our ability to extend our free educational offerings. We tried to ameliorate this by podcasting lectures, but expansion is not what we are really about.

What the open courseware and free iTunesU lectures cannot provide on their own is the intellectual exchange and transformation of dialogue that characterize our sessions, which are built on an equilibrium between talk (monologue) for 45 minutes and discussion (dialogue) for 45 minutes.

We don’t aim to teach others, but allow everyone a voice within the learning space where teacher and student (ideally) dissolve into equal partners working together. Following pioneering work by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and the French philosopher Jacques Rancière on equality and breaking down power relations between teacher and student we endeavor to change the way knowledge is understood and the way education is engaged with. Within months we were receiving emails from people around Australia and abroad urging us to set up free universities in their hometowns.

We were flattered, but again, that is not what we, the Melbourne Free University, are about, we replied. Our rootedness in the community is an integral part of our charter and thus we encouraged others to start their own free universities; each community is different, and free universities need to respond to the particularities of their own communities.

To support them, we have written a short guide on ‘How to Start a Free University,’ which shares what we have learned over the past two years about starting and running a free university. It is not a step-by-step guide, but explores the issues people need to consider when setting up a free university, details our successes (and failures), and shares reflections and feedback from participants and others involved.

Let the revolution begin. ◾

MFU Guide

The Melbourne Free University has recently celebrated its second anniversary and the launch of its guide on ‘how to start a free university’. The guide is available for free.

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