#ocTEL week 8: learning for learning’s sake?

The Saylor Foundation is a non-profit organisation whose “mission” is “to make education freely available to all” regardless of a student’s location or finances. Sounds good, eh?

The Saylor model is all about aggregation: it pulls in open or creative commons educational resources from places like MIT OpenCourseWare and Open Yale Courses. Its main advantage is its low cost base in terms of tutors, production and infrastructure. There’s some original material from the professors and an e-portfolio option that allows students to network, but from the student’s point of view it’s the curation of open resources by experts that offers the real enhancement.

Ok, the word “mission” immediately made me clench my teeth so I have to point out a couple of things. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Saylor says:

The benefit of rich families putting their child through Harvard is always going to exist. But it’s quite evident that there are 700 million peasants in China who are never going to go to Harvard.

But those 700 million Chinese “peasants”, along with around 75% of the world’s population, aren’t going to study via Saylor either, because the courses are only available in English.

Michael Saylor talks about delivering 12 million books via an iPad to someone in a Burmese jungle. The one slight problem being that 99.2% of the Burmese population currently have no access to broadband, like 61% of all people in the developing world.

And … unclench.

Saylor.org is pretty light on information about how the courses are actually assessed. (The brief screenshots I saw in the YouTube video looked like multiple-choice questions.) Once you complete the course and pass the online exam, you can print out your own certificate of completion. The Saylor Foundation is making efforts to link these certificates to college credits, but there’s no formal accreditation at the moment.

However, the value of university education isn’t in the course materials per se (although obviously every course needs high-quality materials): it’s in the rigour and transferability of the assessment and the ultimate qualification. Conventional universities spend vast portions of their time complying with various internal and external measures of academic quality and accreditation, including audits – none of which applies to the Saylor courses. Or MOOCs, for that matter.

Of course, learning for learning’s sake can be wonderful. In theory, someone in a developing country could log onto Saylor.org, teach themselves, say, mechanical engineering and start making changes that are of real benefit to themselves and their community. But no matter how good that learning experience is, just how does someone with no formal qualification in mechanical engineering begin to work in that field?

Maybe the value of learning via MOOCs or an organisation like The Saylor Foundation is to dip your toe in a subject before you embark on more formal learning. Certainly, this has been my experience with ocTEL (it’s leading me into a part-time MSc in digital education at Edinburgh University).

People engage in education because they believe in its transformational power: to give them a new career, to improve their quality of life or job satisfaction. And that only happens when you’ve got a universally recognised qualification in your hand at the end.

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