Excellent and Personalized Education That Is Open To All—C’est Possible?

My biggest dilemma in life is what I call the “incredible complex.” Those of you who have seen Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles will know what I’m talking about. The complex is verbally expressed by a superhero’s son, Dash, and his frustrated conclusion that “if everyone is special, then no one is.”

Or, in the words, of The Incredibles’ villian, “when everyone is super, then no one will be.”

What about, when everyone is educated, or talented, or artistic, or whatever, then nobody is? This ongoing conflict between excellence and accessibility has repeated itself over and over throughout history, from the invention of the printing press to the expansion of youtube and the blogosphere. (Please understand that such inventions are beautiful things and have allowed many to express ideas in meaningful and profound ways—it’s just that they have also allowed a lot of less excellent things to flourish as well. This video is probably a good example of this.)

It seems, then, that no matter how excellent something is, the minute it is made more accessible, its excellence, or at least its “specialness” or novelty, goes down.

This happens the most, I fear, with education, even in the United States. I find it ironic that a country proclaiming equality for all chooses to fund its schools with property taxes, thereby linking the quality of education with socioeconomic status. And when there have been efforts to redistribute the wealth, the upper classes have always protested or resisted such changes. It happened during the civil rights movement and it happens now, as evidenced by the gross inequalities that still persist between suburban and inner-city schools. My little sister, who went to a high school in an affluent area just outside of Philadelphia, did a photography project documenting the walk from her newly remodeled school to a run-down school in the city that was less than two miles away. The contrast was most evident when crossing City Line Avenue, the road that divides Philadelphia (the city) from the Main Line (the suburb).

Of course, many have tried to come up with solutions to this problem of inequality in education. One article I recently read discusses the idea of using the internet to make meaningful learning more accessible. However, as its title indicates—“In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?”—the blogpost raises some valid concerns about virtual learning. It mainly talks about how different colleges and universities are starting to offer online classes, programs, and even degrees. However, it made the interesting point that most of the so-called elite schools are not offering online degrees, but rather, entire courses online for free. This is something that I find extremely fascinating. While many mid-ranked and state schools are making lots of money off of online degree programs, more exclusive or elite schools  are choosing to make lectures and courses available to the general public online for free instead. Many of these schools do not offer any degree programs at all. Is this the answer to the “incredible complex?” Are these universities making knowledge and learning more accessible while still maintaining excellence and prestige?

Now, we’re slowly inching into an overly complicated discussion about the definition of excellence, which can quickly become problematic. Does exclusivity define excellence? I’m not entirely sure. When I want to host an excellent or successful dinner party, for example, I have to limit the number of guests I invite; otherwise, the whole evening will be a miserable experience for everyone. Only so many people will fit into my two-room basement apartment, and I only have so much money budgeted out for such entertaining (I’m in grad school, after all). I think the same is true in the field of education. If there are too many students, then the teacher will not be able to fully address individual needs or interests, and the experience will mirror the typically impersonal 500+ student lecture hall where the professor is the sage on the stage. Thanks to the generosity of various universities and the internet, though, these experiences are now being made even more accessible online. I personally think that these online courses featuring recordings of some of the best professors in the nation could replace a lot of general education courses that are usually experienced in massive lecture halls. However, I’m not sure if I think that the entire college experience should become virtual. What about the other life skills you learn when you leave home and go to college for the first time? What about the opportunities many students have to work with professors one-on-one as research and teaching assistants? What about all the awesome 20-student-sized honors classes I got to take at BYU?

The article “In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?” also notes that more students drop out of online courses and suggests that online learning doesn’t necessarily have the same impact as face-to-face teaching and learning. I did my undergraduate honors thesis on Emmanuel Levinas and his ethical philosophy on face-to-face interaction, so I could probably go on and on about this. Suffice it to say, I wholeheartedly support face-to-face contact!!! As great as the internet is, along with its various versions of social media, the most meaningful social interactions I have ever had have been in person on a more individual basis. But, that is probably because I’m a bit of an introvert, something that I’ll discuss more in the next post. What I’m most interested in now is how online learning can improve both the quality and accessibility of education. I suspect that online learning offers a plethora of opportunities to accomplish this, which have yet to be considered, and that should hence, be explored. Any ideas about this are welcome.