A Free and Completely Online University

For the short version go here. Similar thoughts have, no doubt, been thought before or if not thought have at least been put on the Internet. However, I personally have yet to see or hear of anything that is exactly like what I am about to describe.

Before I start I want to note that it is certainly not my intention to complain about our educational system (it certainly could, and has been worse), but only to suggest and argue for a better alternative. I don't mind those who do complain, but I want to focus more on the solution, not the problem.

Implementation: Students who are accepted to this university would be required to install a cloud computing program on their personal computer and to sign an agreement obligating them to be online a certain number of hours (maybe even at certain times) during the day. The program would use part of the bandwidth and processing power of all the students to run a virtual machine and a website that would perform all the functions of a university computer lab. It would run message boards, educational software, and maybe even super computing experiments and research. The reason for all this is to cut overhead by means of eliminating the need for a huge central server and bandwidth, although one would still need a small server to run it. For examples of cloud computing check out SETI@home and BitTorrent.

Educational design: The final goal would be for interactive simulation to be the main instructional tool, i.e. you are doing practice problems in the program, and you can click on parts for hints and such; tests would remain the same as in a normal university but would have to be completed online. This is because the most effective teaching styles may be hard to emulate in the classroom, software can be much more flexible. There should also be more studies done on what teaching methods work, and less reliance on self evaluative student polls.

If there are lectures, online video lectures would be more efficient. One thing I have noticed in engineering school is that some courses, like Engr's, don't allow adequate time for questions, and most of the students are too confused to ask questions anyway. Everyone scribbles notes as fast as they can, and doesn't think about the material until they get home. Why try listening if something they're going over in 15 seconds takes an hour of study to fully comprehend anyway? The reason why I say "if there are lectures" is because people generally read many times faster than teachers can talk, so the question of whether or not to have all materials in just text and graphical form is legitimate.

Some of these problems can be solved by studying before each class, but no one, that I have asked, does that, and depending on the class it is not always effective. Video lectures and notes (that are already online) would allow students to pause, or rewind, and actually make good use of the lecture. Professors, rather than rushing through the same lecture every single semester could, lecture once, record it, and then post it online to be watched for the next say 10 years until the field significantly changes.

Students would also play a much larger role in teaching students (who are in lower courses than they). This is because with some professors their field has become so natural and habitual for them that they do not remember the process by which they learned it, or what confused them during that time, and hence are not very effective when teaching it. It is better to have something explained to you by someone closer to your level for this reason. The professors would be there, mostly, to answer questions that graduate students and others cannot, and to teach the highest level (graduate) courses, and make sure course material is accurate.

There would be special wiki pages set up for courses written by graduate students, or just undergrads that have done very well in the course. Graduate students, and undergrads in good standing, would be required to spend a certain amount of time answering questions from students about courses, on message boards.

Students would also have to go to the message boards to see course schedule changes, updates, and to get new assignments. I thought of message boards because whenever I have a problem with a computer and I look online, the best answer, almost always, is on a message board. It's not surprising since someone out there likely has had the same problem, and message boards are a good way of storing discussions in a searchable format. Whenever students in a normal university go home and discuss coursework, their discussions are lost to the rest of the university. This also leaves more social students with an unfair advantage. However, if everyone had to go to a message board to have any discussion whatsoever about courses, then we would have a much richer environment in which to search for answers. (Also every message board would be open to anyone in the university)

All this would not only save time for the professors, but I believe would improve the efficiency of the education process. Help would be easier to find, less time would be wasted flipping through books that lack sufficient examples, and more time could be spent comprehending the subject and practicing problems. Also, this type of education could be worked around any schedule since it is totally online.

Sustainability: Since there would be no buildings, no salaries, and no prettifying marble monuments, the only cost would be in maintaining the software and server used to run it. If the main discipline taught in this school was computing then this could be accomplished by requiring the graduate computer science students to not only maintain the software, but to write new software, or make improvements on it for the university.

Professors for this university would have to be persuaded that the amount of time they save by working at a more efficient university translates into more time for research and consulting (which translates into more money for them); hence, they get the benefits of having graduate students as helpers and other professors as associates for brain picking without the time wasted lecturing and such every semester.

Closing thoughts: I think all this would solve the two most egregious errors with most education:
1, It costs money.
2, It is inefficient, at least for those who think differently.

1: Normally trade in our capitalist society happens because people possess commodities of relatively the same value (for the quantity in which they are being exchanged), but of different uses. (I use the word commodity differently and loosely: work, money, knowledge etc.) When you go to school you put massive effort into what you are doing, and yet have to pay monetary costs for it as well; so I think you must concede that it is at least an unbalanced exchange in terms of work. However, the question of whether it is unbalanced in terms of value is harder to establish. You may argue: "In school I gain valuable knowledge, but the work I do there has no real use in the economy, therefore it makes sense that school costs money."

However, the school work you do does have value because education can be two sided. Two sided because the best way to retain information is to actually do something related to it, teaching is just one of those things, if not more rigorous: "The best way to learn is to teach." (Frank Oppenheimer) Professors who have decades of experience in their field probably don't benefit as much from teaching undergrads as say grad students or other higher level undergrads would. However, if we distributed the teaching responsibility more, the work of students would indeed have more value because then the teachers would be able to learn as well. Right now I believe valuable teaching experience is being wasted on those are over qualified to teach a certain level of student. The fact that there is such unbalance and inefficiency during exchanges between students and schools may, in itself, have a deleterious effect on the quality of education, since this is after all a capitalistic society.

2: I have integrated all I wanted to say on this topic in with the university's description.

Seriously?: I do seriously plan on trying it with whatever resources I have (or with whatever anyone else is willing to donate). This summer I will be programming at a software engineering company in Virginia, and I hope the experience I gain from that job will bring me a step closer to being able to design the cloud computing, and educational software. I would appreciate any help I could get; I am especially interested in you if you are getting a PhD anytime soon. Also, feel free to leave questions, comments, and criticisms on here; I will certainly be interested in hearing your feedback.


U.N. Owen said...

If this idea is in any way plausible, then why do online courses at universities have a higher tuition cost than regular courses?
Even if this were to happen, the value of the degrees in terms of employment would be next to nothing, because everyone would be able to get one, thus giving no one a competitive advantage. You do realize college is just competition for getting a piece of paper, and profit for universities, don't you?

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

Wow, thats cynical.

Samuel Gates said...

ummm, yeaaa...i was reading the little prince this morning, the chapter where the prince meets a merchant selling pills that make you never thirsty, and so you save fifty three minutes a week.

the prince said if he took the pills, he would use the extra time to slowly walk to a cool, clear spring.

but i like the idea. i think it is far superior to the current system, and we do have cases of true creative populism arising from collaboration on the internet, wikipedia and couchsurfing come to mind.

i think there should be a UofGoogle, they would probably do it the best, and i think they already do have a cloud computing thing going on

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be rude but I really don't understand how the prince and water comment applies. I'm just curious. I would love an explanation.

Samuel Gates said...

I enjoy walking to class

Samuel Gates said...

...more than I usually enjoy the classes themselves

Unknown said...

can't we just be surrounded by imax-like speech learning software like the Vulcans? :)

i think we are on the path for more independent learning in university settings, simply because the quality of professor teaching is very poor these days. teaching is just a formality that is required, but not really observed or analyzed. part of the reason for this is because professors know that research brings more money from the government, and thus society. so they are in effect promoting education economically.

i'm very interested in new learning techniques, as i'm experimenting with them on facebook right now. social/peer learning and graduate students should certainly be utilized. I think the biggest issue in this field is A.I. learning methods... we need better software which can react to more user input, and efficiently answer questions students have... digging through wikipedia and google can sometimes even be a challenge. finding a way to automate questions to the right people should also be encouraged.

very interesting read... whatever the new system is or becomes, i hope it stresses more "free thought" in learning... we need to be more aware of issues surrounding our education, and how they effect our society. So many times i've heard professors ramble about proofs in text books and they clearly have no idea about their use. This background information is vital because it helps the "imagination" process...

"The man who has no imagination has no wings"
-mohammed ali

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

To Owen (I responded to his comment prior to this, but wanted to correct some things in my previous response that I have now deleted)

I think offline courses have lower tuition costs for the same reason that lobster was considered poor man's food in the 19th century. Simply because online courses are less common (universities haven't adapted to provide them in quantity) it's an issue of supply and demand. Degrees would not be easier to get in terms of work, only in terms of the money you had to pay for it. After that people would compete based on mind and not monetaries. "You do realize college is just competition for getting a piece of paper, and profit for universities, don't you?" It is now, but that doesn't mean it will always be. I'll follow Hume when it comes to induction.

To Patrick,
Thanks for your helpful thoughts.