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TU Global: College: To go or not to go, that is the question

12 March 2014 By Jake Ulick, Columnist No Comments

Which conversation have you had with yourself recently that best typifies our cultural climate at this time? The one about the true value of college and whether or not you should drop out and join the others in Silicon Valley with your billion dollar idea? Or the one about the untapped potential of the Internet and its capacity to bring people together?

Such are the questions we find ourselves asking each other in the classroom and outside in the real world where its daily pressures force us to confront the uncomfortable possibility that the way we’ve been doing things for a long time may not have been ideal; or that we have the capability but have not yet harnessed our potential to do higher education in a more efficient way.

The college debate has been framed as a decision between two binary options of going or not going — based predominantly on factors having to do with the menace that shows no mercy: money — but each with multiple, oftentimes unpredictable outcomes. For many, there are no other options available.

MIT OpenCourseWare is one of the many programs online where the university (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in this case) posts almost all of the course materials (slideshows, lecture notes, video presentations, selected readings, essay and exam assignments) from the classes it offers on campus. You are not enrolled in the university nor do you interact with a professor. But the information and materials are free.

I just recently discovered the site and have since found it extremely useful, exciting and distracting. If I want, I can learn computer coding and programming or the laws surrounding patents and intellectual property using the same materials that a student lucky enough to be at MIT would. On the flipside, if I’m bored by the usual bout of news circulating, I can download a course’s materials and just find something interesting to read about that I otherwise would not have find on the Internet on my own.

Case in point: the other night I downloaded the materials for a course titled “Technopanics: Moral Panics about Technology.” The list of assigned readings brought me to a research paper about the hacking group Anonymous that was presented in a multimedia, left-right scrolling format on a site that I have now bookmarked and continue to go back to for interesting and aesthetically pleasing content. Another assigned reading was an academic research paper on the topic of trolling on R.I.P. or memorial Facebook pages which I read in its entirety.

For me, the online courses, even if they are participatory and I’m getting a grade, will never suffice alone; they’re complementary to a traditional in-person educational setting. But I and anyone else can still benefit greatly from these materials even if they don’t grant me a degree in the end. The availability of the same information taught at an elite college such as MIT to anyone who happens to have Internet access is a step towards progress.

Obviously such an endeavor comes with a price but many generous foundations and individual supporters quickly fill that financial void.

Education is an investment with long-term returns but then sometimes not much of a tangible return at all. Not all can make that gamble and a four-year hiatus from building their savings and dealing with the rest of their life to get a degree may not seem the most cost-effective which is why we are seeing the growth of these online course material programs bringing knowledge and vital information to those that deserve it but can’t necessarily afford it in a conventional setting. For some today, education just means having a computer.

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