I’ve never really liked the word “training” for what happens in school–particularly in higher education.  You train a dog.  Or a dancing bear.  The term seems limiting and constrained; it means that just one small task or skill is the goal.  If you’ve been trained for a job, you know how to do that job.  But you don’t really know anything beyond that.

But schools have often been seen in just that light.  The traditional (and still common) view of schooling is that it prepares students for a job.  Possibly a career (which is a more interesting, and higher-paid, job), but there is a specific goal or endpoint and every student is on a path to that goal or endpoint.  And if we look at some of the history of schools and how they have been conceived (as you’ll do in the chapters from Rethinking Education that you’re reading for this unit), we’ll see that training, or the endpoint of job-readiness or career-placement, has often been a very explicit goal of schools and schooling.  And beyond that, we’ll see that cultures are often very specific about who gets what kind of training, who gets what kind of endpoint.

Education as a cultural marker also means that education marks students and steers them into which cultures, which roles, they will be able to join.  Different students get very different paths–and traditionally, the best students (and I’ll ask you to think about how we define “best,” too) get the widest range of potential choices.  And therefore they get the training to be flexible and open and critical about choosing from among that range.

One of the things we’re seeing as we move to the future of education is that these distinctions are breaking down.  Students are deciding for themselves who is the “best” student, and who gets to take what direction with their learning.  Students who, in the traditional model, would have been given the full range of options, the full broad academic experience, are deciding for themselves that they want the direct goal and explicit end-point that used to be reserved only for “lower-level” students.  And those “lower-level” students are deciding for themselves that a broad liberal education, science and theory and philosophy and literature, are the direction they want to take–they don’t want to just be slotted into one specific job choice.  Or sometimes they’re already in that job, but still taking the opportunity, through TED or Academic Earth, or MIT’s OpenCourseWare, to get the broader education which might previously have been denied to them.

When people can break down the walls of institutions and degrees and departments, and decide for themselves what they want to learn and when they want to learn it, how will that change our schools, and how will it change our cultures? As college students, I’m sure you have had to take classes you would not have chosen if you could really direct your own education.  And maybe you’ve taken others (this one?) which you wanted to take because you wanted to learn something, not because they were required or directly related to a specific career path.

What about those “breadth” requirements? Do they have value?  If you’re a finance major, why should you have to take American Literature? If you’re an English major, why should you have to take Biology?  And if you got to choose all your own courses, exactly as you wanted, would that make for a more limited education? Or a broader one? When MIT puts all their courses online for free, what does that do to the value of an MIT degree?

You can take a Yale course on the American Novel, right now, for free.  You can even watch the lecture (there are actually three parts–this is just the first lecture–but you can get all of them) from that course on Nabokov’s Lolita right here in this course.  Or embed it in your own blog. (you don’t really need to watch this whole video–or the other parts–for this class.  But watch a few minutes and see what you think).

Watch it on Academic Earth

So do you need to go to Yale? Or why would you need to listen to a lecture on Lolita from anyone else? I’m not a Yale professor.  Would you want to hear my lecture on Lolita if you could hear one from Yale?

(And remember the question that came up in unit 1.  What good is a lecture, anyway? Is a series of lectures really a course? This new world of open education might make us question even more what good education or the best education really is.  What is a course, anyway?)