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Technology & Innovation

Simulating Higher Education on the Web

There are three major functions of higher education: knowledge, socialization and accreditation. How can the Web simulate this experience of college?

The idea of “non-traditional” higher education, like online universities, is gaining a lot of traction today. Count author Anya Kamenetz among its growing list of advocates. Not only is college too expensive, as she argued in her book Generation Debt, but it has become more or less a “credential mill” that doesn’t deliver the economic gains it has promised to middle class students. Kamenetz lays out this critique in a new book called DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

What are the main benefits of a traditional college education? In an interview with Big Think, Kamenetz outlined these “functions” and placed them into three major buckets. “One of them is obvious,” she said. “content, knowledge, and skills–the type of things we’re supposed to be learning and packing into our heads in the classroom.” 

The second is socialization, “getting a new idea of who you are as a person coming into your own identity, relationships with peers, relationships with mentors, professors, and eventually preparing yourself to join the community of practitioners.”

Lastly, there is accreditation, “that piece of parchment that lets you out in the world and participating and hopefully getting a job.”

So how well can online education perform in these key areas?


As far as knowledge content goes, Kamenetz points to MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), which has been out for 10 years, and has “really proved the model in terms of saying, it’s okay for a university to open its doors to the world to make its course material available.” The next generation of open content, according to Kamenetz, is evident today in sites like the Khan Academy, which offers over 2,000 videos on everything from Algebra concepts to high finance and “they’re so easy to share, they’re so easy to transport.”


Socialization is being accomplished online by “taking the way that we relate to each other in the classroom setting” and finding parallels on the web where “there is the ability for people to cluster together over shared interests.”


Kamenetz calls accreditation the “trickiest area” because “it’s the monopoly force that colleges hold” that allows them to “charge so much money because they are the gatekeepers.” This argument is trickiest indeed, especially when we consider the critiques of open source, made most prominently by Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget. If something is free, the quality tends to suffer.

However, Kamentz predicts this will change. “The traditional diploma will be supplemented and in some cases supplanted” by opinion and reputation-based networks

Kamentz tells Big Think:

“The fact is that the strength of opinion-based networks and reputation-based networks on the web is starting to become one of the most trusted areas where people are going to look for information to make choices…The socialization and the accreditation is available through networks online in a totally different way that might be more accessible, that might be more affordable, and above all, offer people many more options for meeting these goals in different ways.”


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