The gates of exclusivity are being torn down—just in time to save humanity from its bumbling future. At least, I hope so. Free school programs, mostly online, now offer anyone with an Internet connection access to a world of knowledge. Education, it seems, may finally be within reach of everybody.
With costs soaring at most post-secondary institutions these days, it’s no wonder that many would-be students opt to forego higher education. Yet, even those who choose to go into debt in order to pay for school often do so with only the end goal of a degree in mind. More and more, resume-building is replacing actual learning, the pursuit of knowledge, or developing critical-thinking skills as the driving reason behind attending college.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the traditional methods of education are no longer a match for the fast-changing landscape of entertainment and technological distractions. Fifteen-pound textbooks and early morning lectures do not inspire a generation of minds that seeks less rigidity, more freedom, and more engagement.
The present situation, therefore, offers a fertile backdrop for some disturbing visions. When it comes to the future of human intelligence, it’s oh-so-easy to be pessimistic.
Not just a bad dream
The popularity of “reality” TV shows like Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives… reveals our most mundane, idiotic, and superficial tendencies. We’ve made rock stars out of nobodies, cheering on their low intelligence while scientists struggle to get the respect and attention they deserve.
I now have nightmares about humanity devolving into a dystopian society of stupid trolls, much like the one depicted in the film Idiocracy, a satirical comedy by Mike Judge of Beavis and Butthead fame. In the movie, humanity’s future dunces are completely devoid of intellectual curiosity. They are so simpleminded, in fact, that they’ve managed to kill off their crops because they water them with a heavily marketed sports drink full of electrolytes (i.e., salt). If you haven’t seen Idiocracy, here’s a little taste:
Waking up to a new day
So, I’ve nearly written off humanity. But now I have reason to hope. The rise of free online schooling provides a genuine beacon of optimism. (Anything that gets us to use our brains in order to increase our understanding of the world and of each other is a good thing.) Through free college courses, online or otherwise, we may have a real shot at increasing humanity’s per-capita intelligence. The only question is whether or not we will utilize this gift.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the free online schooling options is Khan Academy. With more than 2,400 easy-to-understand videos so far, Khan Academy is proving that colleges and universities do not have a monopoly on knowledge, or on good teaching methods.
Khan’s short videos, on a variety of traditional subjects, are enjoyable to watch and make it simple to get excited about the material. I’d wager that many people who watch these videos retain what they learn better than if they’d snoozed through a classroom lecture at a time not of their choosing.
Of course, the Web is growing with additional innovative solutions in open education and free online learning opportunities. A few others that stand out include:
- Apple’s iTunes U and YouTube’s education channel, which both provide online video lectures from colleges and universities around the word, including from such prestigious institutions as Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Harvard.
- MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which offers free course materials from most of its undergraduate and graduate subjects.
- The University of the People, which is a tuition-free online institution that currently offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in business administration and computer science. The downside is that this university is not yet accredited (but it is seeking to gain that status).
A vital companion
Although these free online classes aren’t likely to lead to a recognized degree or replace our whole system of formal education—not yet anyway—they have a lot more value than you might think, even if you attend a traditional school. But to understand their true worth, you’ll have to take an expanded view of education and its place in your life. Some things to consider:
- A degree is worthless unless you’ve actually learned something useful during your studies.
- Learning is a lifetime process. The world changes, and ongoing education can help you adapt to those changes better than the person who spends obscene amounts of time watching overpaid narcissists on TV get into cat fights while stressing out over whether or not to get trout lips.
- The human brain has an insatiable appetite. Curiosity is its natural condition. By taking advantage of free online classes, you can feed your mind what it really needs.
- Free schooling online is a terrific way to dip your toes into different subjects before you pay for a formal education. By making yourself comfortable with the material ahead of time, you gain confidence and make it more likely that you will succeed and retain what you learn (and have paid for).
- You know it: many teachers and textbooks are difficult to learn from. But the growing variety of free online courses means that if you aren’t getting what you need from your existing instructors, you can find someone else online explaining the same material in a way that makes it easier for you to grasp. Think of the Web as your personal expanding universe of free expert tutors.
- Right about now, the world could use a few grand, positive visions that everyone can get behind. But making that happen will require more of us to have the knowledge and intelligence that allows big intellectual connections to be made and understood by a critical mass of people.
Humanity needs you
Can free school programs help save humanity from decaying into a bottomless pit of round-the-clock fart jokes, a spiritual obsession with Botox, and an omnipresent disdain for intelligence?
Only time will tell. But you can do your part.