The education revolution

It has gotten quiet around the Australian government’s education revolution, the one that includes an infrastructure boost of $16.2 billion and a digital education revolution that brings together the National Broadband Network, information technology and schools as well as laptops and personal computers for secondary school students.

The revolution is said to end this year (total funding of $64.9 billion for 2009-2012). This is a shame, as there was no real revolution – more of an increase in funding for a little while.

New websites that aimed to provide better information and choice to the new consumers of education, such as MySchool.edu.au or MyUniversity.gov.au, have been mired in problems and have had little success in better informing or revolutionising how parents or students decide where to learn and study.

Those revolutions are happening elsewhere. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on maths related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has for a long time provided open courseware to select courses. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listen/watch to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

Last year a course on artificial intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, and Google’s director of research, Peter Norvig, attracted over 160,000 students from 190 countries. Subsequently they launched Udacity.com, which offers free online robotics and internet related courses.

Udemy.com allows anyone to start their own course, whereas other providers maintain some quality control, in terms of allowing only universities access.  For instance, iTunesU, a part of the Apple family, podcasts university lectures, seminars and whole courses (the Melbourne Free University also podcasts there now), and Coursera.org offers a range of university courses run by a consortium of Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

The defining aspect of this education revolution is technology and its power to make information and content available to ever more people at little or no cost. This is an important step in leveling the playing field in global education and the sharing of knowledge in times of globalisation. But there is still something missing in this type of education, which is the dynamic community of learners that extends beyond a mere learning space.

Two years ago a group of us started a much smaller and less ambitious project – to bring free higher education to Melbourne. Thus our endeavour is more in line with the free schools/university movement of the 1960s than the technological transformations of online learning. Our principles and ideas are lodged more firmly in the present and the community within which we operate.

Being grounded is a good thing, but also a limiting factor. Our courses are available in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, our intellectual and physical home, and thus limits our ability to extend our free educational offerings. We tried to ameliorate this by podcasting lectures, but expansion is not what we are really about.

What the open courseware and free iTunesU lectures cannot provide on their own is the intellectual exchange and transformation of dialogue that characterise our sessions, which are built on an equilibrium between talk (monologue) for 45 minutes and discussion (dialogue) for 45 minutes.

We don’t aim to teach others, but allow everyone a voice within the learning space where teacher and taught (ideally) dissolve into equal partners working together. Within months we were receiving emails from people around Australia and abroad urging us to set up free unis in their hometowns.

We were flattered, but again, that is not what we, the Melbourne Free University, are about, we replied. Our rootedness in the community is an integral part of our charter and thus we encouraged others to start their own free universities; each community is different, and free universities need to respond to the particularities of their own communities.

To support them, we have written a short guide on ‘How to Start a Free University,’ which shares what we have learned over the past two years about starting and running a free university.  It is not a step-by-step guide, but explores the issues people need to consider when setting up a free university, details our successes (and failures), and shares reflections and feedback from participants and others involved.

Let the revolution begin.

The Melbourne Free University has just celebrated its second anniversary and the launch of its guide on ‘how to start a free university’. The guide is available for free to download at http://melbournefreeuniversity.org/downloads/MFU_How_to_Start_a_Free_UNI_manual.pdf .

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