Education has always been comfortable with the idea of failure. The concept of failure is crucial if we are to have students who pass courses, failure helps to segregate the good from the bad, provides an excuse for remedial classes to promote conformity. The best method to reinforce the concept of failure is to ensure areas such as science, math and English are heavily weighted, the best way to ensure continued failure is to have standardized testing and hold fast to traditional subject boundaries.
Online education is providing a challenge that strikes at the heart of how we value our education. MOOCs have opened up a new world. Students can explore the impact of environmental policy on small island economies, explore how clean water supplies promote health and how these supplies may be threatened, examine and discuss the figures relating to renewable energy, ross boundaries between subjects and challenge established views, explore how trade policies may conflict with sustainable fishing, and they can do these and many other courses without having to pass a standard test in math and English.
These very courses may represent a challenge to the current system. Students who are able to discuss freely their ideas with their fellows from around the world are going to be exposed to many views, will have the opportunity to see how events can be reported differently in different countries, how figures are selected for texts, be able to interact with others, and from this will be able to form views of their own. What a challenge that presents to many a standard text!
Confining a student to a classroom, limiting access to fellow students, and controlling through a text not just content but also assessment with end-of-chapter questions, and question banks from the publisher, makes the task of conforming rather easy. Online classes with discussion and peer assessment are throwing the text out of the window and the traditional classroom desk onto the bonfire.
There is now a problem for colleges, and universities. How do we make use of the opportunities presented through e-learning, knowing that the probability is that we could produce a generation who will question existing social values, look to the causes of inequality and demand change, and judge for themselves whether the science of climate change is more important than the political denial of action for mitigation.
What sort of a challenge will there be for colleges who see a future for e-learning, knowing that old boundaries are crumbling and new areas for learning are emerging? Students who have formed opinions and been rewarded by fellows as well as their professors and tutors for their ideas and ability to justify views are going to be very different from those who have proved they can subject themselves to conformity through standardized testing. We are no longer going to produce the herds of compliant employee-fodder the corporations required; how will they react?
At the school level in the United Kingdom we have used a government inspectorate and a national curriculum to crack down on the emergence of new ideas and values, we are extending the policing of education to cover colleges and universities, privatising the control of examinations and the texts. Are we really trying to ‘raise standards’ or are we working towards enforcing greater conformity?
Online education is here to stay and the tide of potential for e-learning is swelling and will not recede. Those who deny the potential can continue to build their defences through more and more remedial classes, through more and more standardized tests, but the myth that this is producing a better society with less inequality, more social justice and more responsibility has been broken. The sixties produced a generation who challenged some of the more dubious ideas of a Victorian past, the next decade could see online education producing a new generation of students ready to challenge and work for new values.