24 July 2012

edX and the Future of the Human Race

My alma mater is no longer dipping its toes in the uncertain waters of the 21st century--it has stripped off its clothes and taken the full plunge. The University of California's flagship campus at Berkeley has joined MIT and Harvard in the X University Consortium to deliver college courses for free to anyone who has access to the internet. The project is known as edX and was created as a not-for-profit online-learning collaborative between those two world-famous private schools from Cambridge, Massachusetts. UC Berkeley, of course, is a public school. The UC/CSU system was once the jewel of California, offering the finest and most affordable higher education of any state in the union. I was one of those ordinary citizens whose life was transformed by this remarkable, visionary creation. I earned my undergraduate degree at Cal and my teaching credential at Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) in the years 1977-1984, which really marked the end of the golden era. Costs soared after that, and budgets were slashed, but more importantly the belief in the dream, the political will needed to grow and improve faded from the public consciousness. Anti-intellectualism is now in the fore, and the government commitment to public education for all citizens is under fire by a new breed of "every man for himself" yahoos who seek only their own hegemony and lack any sense of social responsibility. The Golden State has lost its luster, and has only itself to blame--its citizens gobbled up the pablum served by this new breed of corporate fat cats and their army of dupes.

Throughout history education has been a luxury reserved for the upper classes. The idea of universal education is a recent one, only emerging in the last century. At the time of the Second World War, about half of school-age kids in the US finished high school. My dad, for example, quit school at 16 to work, then joined the Marines a year later in 1948. In my own generation (I was born in 1959), dropping out was almost unthinkable, and damn rare as well. I've worked in the state's secondary schools for 28 years, and I've seen plenty of failure, but illiteracy is so unusual as to be remarkable, and the vast majority of kids complete at least some kind of high school program even if they don't earn a traditional diploma. The schools are actually victims of their own success--high school is taken for granted. This extraordinary accomplishment of the modern world, the mass education of tens of millions on a global scale, is not seen for the near-miracle that it is. Consequently, we have neglected to view it with the necessary awe and respect and have failed to infuse it with a proper spirit of growth and renewal. Schools are political battlegrounds instead, and every election cycle sees a new batch of politicos and talking heads determined to undermine what's been built for no reason other than to serve their selfish ambitions.

The internet has been likened to the printing press for its transformative effect on society. Luther owed a lot to Gutenberg, actually, can you imagine the Reformation without that new communication technology? If we are to bring the benefits of education to the masses, the brick-and-mortar school will have to evolve. The internet, most people forget, was a government creation. Its existence is a continuing collaboration between public and private entities, proof that we can work together and build something that benefits all of society. I love the delicious irony of survivalist and anarchist websites--what could be more communal and collective than the World Wide Web?

I'm proud of my beloved mother. They've seen the future, and it's not all about dorm rooms and football. When amazing things like The Khan Academy are out there free for anyone with a modem, the message is loud and clear: change or die. The dream of a university education available to everyone may never be fully realized, but that does not mean that the goal is not a good one. Too many people in the world lack clean water and adequate food, and live in constant fear and want, and what's worse, see little hope of change. I like to think it's those people--the oppressed and dispossessed--who will ultimately benefit from things like edX. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I believe a new generation of the traditionally under-served and under-represented who get the chance to succeed will not forget their roots and will use their knowledge and opportunities to help those who are less fortunate. That was once the ethic of this country, and I think it can be again. The creation of a free on-line university education is a baby step, nothing more. It will take more than that to see the dream come true. But all journeys have to start somewhere. UC Berkeley's motto is Fiat lux, taken straight from Genesis, chapter one, verse three: Let there be light.


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