Originally Published: Wednesday, 23 February 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Learning and Linux: Part Two

My last article, Learning and Linux, was instructive. It is heartening to know that I am not the only one frustrated with traditional academics. This week, I would like to explore some alternative methods that are beginning to become possible through open source and the Internet.

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My last article, Learning and Linux, was instructive. It is heartening to know that I am not the only one frustrated with traditional academics. This week, I would like to explore some alternative methods that are beginning to become possible through open source and the Internet.

The goal of most facets of education is seemingly to teach the greatest number of people in the shortest time possible. Traditionally, it has not been much more than an assembly line with rows of students staring at the front of the classroom with blank, confused looks on their faces. This has been a reasonably effective, cheap way to teach. It doesn't cost much to hire a teacher, build a small classroom, and to throw a chalkboard up front.

However, there comes a time when it is necessary to throw out some old assumptions about how things are supposed to be. Linux has shown that it isn't necessary for programmers to physically be in the same location or even in the same time zone. This has the unique effect of allowing development to continue unabated 24 hours a day. There is no reason why certain classes couldn't do the same thing.

What is the purpose of having to physically meet and listen to a lecturer drone on about Philosophy, Math, Computer Science, History, Writing, or Literature? Why do students have to waste their time mindlessly re-copying everything the professor writes on a chalkboard into their little notebooks? If this is "learning how to learn," leave me out of it!

Wouldn't it be more convenient to log into a class Web page, download the lecture in an audio format such as MP3, find out what the home assignment is, and participate in a class discussion using a web-log tool? Also, instead of wasting time writing out notes, you could have a set of notes sprinkled with hyper-links. The students could also share their personal notes, allowing for greater cross-fertilization and collaboration.

Tests and quizzes could be completed online over a secure SSL connection. Scores could be instantly computed using a CGI script. If the instructor were worried about academic fraud, perhaps twice a month or so the class could meet in a physical location to take a traditional test and to resolve miscellaneous issues which needed face-to-face discussion.

After each semester, the entire class Web site and mailing list would be permanently archived into a database. This way students in future classes would be able to draw and build on the experience of previous discussions. Classes wouldn't have to rehash on the same material every time. Unexpected diversions and explorations could be encouraged under this system, and advanced students become partners with the instructor offering alternative viewpoints on the material.

In this way, tuition could actually be lowered and education improved. Ideally, the class discussions would be open to anyone. Not just members of the class. This way, everyone with an Internet connection could have access to an education. Of course they wouldn't get the credentials, but ostensibly school is about learning and not the piece of paper. Perhaps a system could even be devised in which outsiders could participate in the discussions. It would be great to hear from people actually working in that field. It would keep the instructors on their toes if their lectures were peer-reviewed by anyone on the Internet, especially those actually working in the "real world."

Sadly it doesn't seem like schools are really interested in a system like this, Philip Greenspun has an interesting take on the high tuition charged at MIT. He feels that tuition should be free for undergraduates there. I say that they should take one step further and open up some of the lectures and class notes to everyone! They could even make money selling bound copies of the notes or textbooks. A good example of this is Greenspun's book which is available completely online. Even so, I forked out $45 just so I could carry around a hard copy. There is no good reason why more books and classes couldn't operate under the same principle.

Once the software was developed and published, even the smallest schools could throw up a Linux box with MySQL sitting on the backend and start serving up classes to the world. It is time we started breaking out of the old paradigms and using the Internet and open source to their full potentials.

I'll leave you with this quote: It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

--Albert Einstein, 1949

Matt Michie is still a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a small Web page at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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