Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rethinking education

I stumbled upon this article today, talking about how MIT and Harvard have made an insanely large investment to create a new platform called edX. It will be offering interactive university courses which can be studied by anyone, anywhere, with no admission requirements and without charge.

That, along with other successful decentralized education platforms such as Khan Academy and Apple's iTunes U, makes me extremely excited about the prospect of it all. Elementary, preparatory, high school and now university course materials are being made available, with a significantly higher quality than what you might receive at your average school (especially in Egypt). Will that possibly translate to seeing more (or any) home-schooled kids? Could that change the way we think about education in this country and in general? Will that affect cultural stigmas attributed to people who haven't acquired a piece of paper from an institution saying they've had their basic training in a certain topic?

Zooming in to Egypt, and Cairo in specific. I'm a 2009 university graduate, and from my very short experience in life so far, I could already see how we place an unbelievably huge importance to how our education looks like, rather than what it is. And how in the "real life" which we were supposedly getting prepared for all those years, very little of all of that really matters. 
From early on, what the child is passionate about is put aside for what the parents think would get him/her to make more money or have a higher status in society. Who the child is, or what he finds himself excited doing is rarely given any attention. Parents pay, they get the say, and children have to follow. 

Add to that a familial dependency model which we're made to rely on like our life depends on it until it actually does, even well through our adult years, and an all-round rotten education system with unbelievably outdated, and messed up curriculums. What we get is obvious: schools that aren't able to provide the necessary fundamentals, universities filled with kids who either don't want to be there at all, or are taking on a certain major because their parents said so, and workplaces filled with inefficient, unmotivated people who mostly do the bare minimum to get payed every month.

On the other hand, I've seen a few examples here and there of people who have fought for their right to choose what they would spend their lives doing. The few in every university field who really make something out of it despite their parents' disapproval, or the ones that have dropped out of university to pursue their passions and have become prominent entrepreneurs, or the ones that have changed their field of work after they had studied something completely different and are successful nevertheless.

My team in my workplace is another example. We're about 50 people and we have very different educational backgrounds. Some have been to public schools and universities, others private. While all of us here are working as technology consultants, some have majored in computer science, some in electrical engineering, some have been studying languages in their university years and others had even majored in applied arts. 
Some were A students, graduating with honors, and others barely got by with passing grades. And let me tell you something I found very interesting: on the job, some of these A students aren't doing half as well as the ones who were thankful they got to graduate with their class. But in the end, we've all converged to this same job, at the same place, doing more or less the same thing.

All of this makes me wonder. What do we really need from our education system to be effective members of society, who would serve their jobs and positions well? If in most cases we graduate to work jobs that aren't very related to what we've been studying in university, why is it that we spend 4, 5 or 6 whole years cramming our minds with things we'd soon forget and not use again? What exactly are we learning in all those years if the most common thing you hear out of people who're working is "I realized I haven't learnt a thing during university. Not anything that counts anyway". If whether you graduated with flying colours or with a D, you could be offered the same opportunity, or are able to create the same opportunity for yourself, then what does that mean about the value or way students or potential employees are graded and evaluated? What does it mean if quality isn't really determined by the certain school you've gone to, or certain major you've studied, or certain grade you managed to achieve? What is quality? Would we be better off being home-schooled, learning on the hands of good, hand-picked teachers who've mastered their subjects and focusing our energies on what suits each of us the most? Are we forever doomed to spend the first 20 years of our lives on the education machine's conveyor belt that's proving more and more useless in our lives that follow? Could there be a better model? Could Khan Academy and edX be the start of such?

I'm not yet able to fully answer to all of these thoughts, and would love to hear yours!

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