When we as a global community confront the truly difficult question of considering what is really worth devoting our limited time and resources to in an era marked by global catastrophe, I always find my mind returning to what the Internet hasn’t really been used for yet — and what was rumored from its inception that it should ultimately provide — an utterly and entirely free education for all the world’s people.
In regard to such a concept, Bill Gates said in 2010:
“On the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world […] It will be better than any single university […] No matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.”
This may sound like an idealistic stretch to the uninitiated, but the fact of the matter is universities like MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, The European Graduate School, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and other international institutions have been regularly uploading entire courses onto YouTube and iTunes U for years. All of them are entirely free.
Open Culture, Khan Academy, Wikiversity, and many other centers for online learning also exist. Other online resources have small fees attached to some courses, as you’ll find on edX and Coursea. In fact, here is a list of over 100 places online where you can receive high quality educational material. But is anyone even using this material?
The 2015 Survey of Online Learning revealed a “Multi-year trend [that] shows growth in online enrollments continues to outpace overall higher ed enrollments.” I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group points out that “The study’s findings highlight a thirteenth consecutive year of growth in the number of students taking courses at a distance.” Furthermore, “More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 5,828,826 students, a year‐to‐year increase of 217,275).” There are so many online courses, archives of recorded courses, pirate libraries, Massive Open Online Courses, and online centers for learning—but there is no complete database thereof.
Thus, in 2010 I found myself dumping all the websites and master lists I could find onto a simple Tumblr archive I put together called Educating Earth. I then opened a Facebook Group to try and encourage others to share, exchange, and discuss this historically unique outpouring of educational material.
The volume of high quality educational material already available online is staggering. Despite this, there has yet to be a central search hub for all this wonderful and unique content. No robust community has been built around it with major success. This must change. Furthermore, the social and philosophical meaning of this new practice has not been strongly advocated enough yet in a popular forum.
There are usually a few arguments against this brand of internet-based education. One of the most common arguments is that learning online will never be learning in a physical classroom setting. I will grant that. However, I’ll counter it with the obvious: You don’t need to learn everything there is to learn strictly in a classroom setting. It is absurd to assume so. Not everything is surgery. Furthermore, not everyone has access to a classroom, which is really in a large way what this whole issue is all about. Finally, you cannot learn everything you may want to learn from one single teacher in one single location.
Another argument pertains to cost, that a donation-based free education project would be an expensive venture. All I can think to respond to that is: How much in personal debt does the average student in the United States end up in after four years of college? What if that money was used to pay for a robust online educational platform? How many more people the world over could learn from a single four-year tuition alone? These are serious questions worth considering.
Here are just a few major philosophical points for such a project.
Illiteracy has been a historic tool used to oppress people. According to the US Census Bureau an average of one billion more people are born about every 15 years since 1953. In 2012 our global population was estimated at 7 billion people. Many of these individuals will be lucky to ever see the inside of a classroom. Today nearly 500 million women on this planet are denied the basic freedom to learn how to read and write. Women make up two-thirds of total population of the world’s illiterate adults. It is a global crime perpetuated against women, pure and simple.
Here is another really obvious point: If the world has so many problems on both a local and a global scale, does it not make sense to have more problem solvers available to collaborate and tackle them? Consider all these young people devising ingenious ways to clean the ocean, or detect cancer, or power their community by building windmills; don’t you want many orders of magnitude more of all that going on in the world? More people freely learning and sharing what they discover simply translates to a higher likelihood of breakthroughs and general social benefits. This is good for everyone. Is this not obvious?
Here is one last point: In terms of moral, social, and philosophical uprightness, isn’t it striking to have the technology to provide a free education to all the world’s people (i.e. the Internet and cheap computers) and not do it? Isn’t it classist and backward to have the ability to teach the world yet still deny millions of people that opportunity due to location and finances? Isn’t that immoral? Isn’t it patently unjust? Should it not be a universal human goal to enable everyone to learn whatever they want, as much as they want, whenever they want, entirely for free if our technology permits it? These questions become particularly deep if we consider teaching, learning, and education to be sacred enterprises.
My guess is that we have yet to realize how profoundly better off we would all be — that meaning the deep social good it would be — to have all our neighbors as educated as they’d like to be, without these obsolete roadblocks of location and finance. We do not yet see that having educated neighbors is as valuable to the good of the community as having clean running water. Some of us might suspect it, but I think we have yet to fully embrace how overwhelmingly beneficial it would be for the whole planet to give everyone the opportunity to learn whatever they want, as much as they want, whenever they want, from anywhere on the planet.
Simple enough, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report website states, “[E]ducation not only helps individuals escape poverty by developing the skills they need to improve their livelihoods, but also generates productivity gains that fuel economic growth. While growth does not automatically reduce poverty, without it sustained poverty reduction is not possible.” This is quoted from a blog post they released in 2013 called We will never eradicate poverty without quality education for all.
So if you’d like to reduce global poverty, we have to create a free global education platform. If you want see more breakthroughs, we have to create a space where breakthroughs and study can flourish with ease. In terms of a worthwhile project, this has always seemed obviously and outstandingly worthwhile — a free education for all the world’s people.
I imagine a kind of cross between YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Wikipedia with an entirely educational bent. The whole thing would be bottom-up governed by the users. Content will be comment-able, tag-able, and rate-able so that users can compare the information in each course and find the most relevant info to meet their needs. So if you search our database with the term “photons” you will find all the courses related to “photons” from MIT, Caltech, Oxford, etc., because our community will have tagged the exact moment in the timeline when the professor or whoever it may be brings up that topic. Problems and projects could quickly be outsourced and collaborated on by cross-pollinating groups. A powerful algorithm would translate as much material as possible. Research would be freely available to all. Users could also upload their own courses, which would be upvoted or downvoted to help maintain accuracy and value. This would turn us all into student, teacher, and reviewer. The whole vision of the very system of education would move from being, as Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman aptly described, “Knowledge gate-keepers” to “Knowledge guides.” Whitworth and Friedman have written a marvelous series of papers on this, namely Reinventing Academic Publishing Online Part I and Part II.
“While science may once have consisted of amateurs cultivating private knowledge gardens, today it is organized into specialist fiefdoms that defend themselves vigorously. Academics are now gate–keepers of feudal knowledge castles, not humble knowledge gardeners. They have for over a century successfully organized, specialized and built walls against error. However the problem with castles, whether physical or intellectual, is that they dominate the landscape, they make the majority subservient and apathetic, and battles for their power reduce productivity. As research grows, knowledge feudalism, like its physical counterpart, is a social advance that has had its day.”
(For readers who would like to know more, take a look at their brilliant paper Realizing the Power of Extelligence: A New Business Model for Academic Publishing, and Whitworth’s fantastic Combining Rigor and Relevance: The Open Electronic Archive Option.)
As to the sanctity of our academic process, an international body of scientists were polled on what they felt were the 7 biggest problems facing scientists. #4 on the list “Peer review is broken”. “[N]umerous studies and systematic reviews have shown that peer review doesn’t reliably prevent poor-quality science from being published.“ #5: “Too much science is locked behind paywalls”. #7: “Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful.”
An open online learning platform would aim to alleviate these issues.
What is essential to appreciate is that no field of study is an island — physics is connected to chemistry, is connected to biology, is connected to social studies, is connected to psychology, and so on. Business is connected to software, is connected to virtual law, is connected to philosophy, and so on. With the level of problems already here and those quickly on the way, we’ll need more problem solvers. And these problem solvers are going to have to be interdisciplinary generalists with a great umbrella of knowledge and know-how — polymaths. We’re going to need more than just the isolated specialists that dominated the last century to adequately address the our era of problems.
Buckminster Fuller had many harsh words for his era of specialists:
“We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”
Let’s not be naïve, not having something like this already up and running is why Donald Trump, climate-change deniers, and the whole kingdom of low-hanging fruit in the world continue to exist. Rather than indulge in an egoic online flame war, why not do something more useful? In a world after the establishment of free global education, poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and painful stupidity on a global scale (conditions people tend to agree are problematic) will naturally become harder and harder to come by.
In a way, a project such as this was always the destiny of philosophy, social justice, and all the good things we think of when we bring up the word “civilization.” A human future without a free global open learning platform like this is really no future at all. To proceed without a free education for all the world’s people is at once digging our heels into a broken system from the past while at the same time profoundly failing to embrace the incredible tools we have given ourselves. Without it we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
A project such as this is the very definition of unlocking human potential.
If anyone wants to rap further on this angle I’ve been at this game on-and-off since 2010. I cannot believe it still has not yet been seriously implemented by some millionaire or team of tech-heads with more resources, know-how, and talent than myself. I don’t know why something like Educating Earth is not yet on the top-10 websites already. That’s got to change. There is no need for this pervasive disservice to humanity and the planet to endure any longer. We are already well beyond it, technologically speaking; and tragically not yet there, socially speaking. Nevertheless, in my mind, an occurrence like this is inevitable.
Just imagine it for a moment—a final destruction of that ancient barrier between those with the means for an education (money, class, location) and an actual place of learning. As Einstein pointed out, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I continually look forward to the day when I can load up my browser or don my VR headset and join the conversation at the free and open learning hub with the rest of humanity.
I only hope I don’t have to wait yet another six years for it.