Higher Education and the Coming Internet Autodidact

There is a growing movement of people who are learning on their own, rather than relying on institutions of higher learning to provide the necessary structure and opportunity. The Internet has begun to provide access to information with ease and rapidity never before seen in human history. As a result, people who are interested in learning are able to do so without having to rely on the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge.

Evidence of this change is easy to find: The Khan Academy, Make Magazine, Instructables.com, and a whole wealth of podcasts and blogs on nearly any subject imaginable. The experts might still live in an ivory tower, but when that tower has broadband, the rest of us no longer have to make the pilgrimage to the tower to benefit from their expertise. And increasingly, experts seem to find those towers drafty and uncomfortable homes, and choose to be other places altogether.

Some schools have begun to embrace that change in various ways. Several members of my team at work have recently learned Objective C programming to create iPhone applications. Since Texas State University doesn’t offer any classes of the sort currently, many of us have worked our way through the iPhone development course at Stanford University — not by actually attending, but by taking advantage of the videos of the lectures and the supporting documentation that Stanford has published free of charge¬†online.

While this sort of information broadcast is terrific, there is concern in academe, expressed at a recent Higher Education Leadership Conference, that this isn’t going far enough to address the changes that are coming, that in fact students are increasingly able to educate themselves, and will only rely on the University to accredit their learning, leaving Universities a husk of their former selves.

I think that change is indeed coming, and as someone who has a terrible time sitting patiently through classes just to learn the stuff I want to, I welcome it. However, I also suspect that the situation is not quite as dire for our institutions of higher learning as it’s painted. I know there are lots of people who benefit a great deal from having the clear structure and discipline that courses provide. And while the way of the self-taught is one that Universities haven’t embraced sufficiently up until now, giving them some long-overdue attention and validation doesn’t mean that the traditional student will vanish.

Different people have different learning styles, and educational institutions have to learn to grow to embrace them all, rather than flopping wholesale from one approach to another. Their future may just depend on it.

(Thanks to Jason for the link that set my thoughts going on this.)