Wednesday, December 9, 2009

That’s Right! A Double Feature Today! :-D

Lights and Spirals and Obama, Oh My!

OpenCourseWare and the Future of Education

This is an article I wrote for the December 8th edition of The Tech.


OpenCourseWare and the Future of Education

As we are all aware, MIT has and will continue to make relatively large cuts to its budget in light of the recent financial meltdown. The administration established the Institute-Wide Planning Task Force to evaluate ways to make these cuts with minimal impact to the MIT community. One proposal is to cut funding to OpenCourseWare (OCW) or continue funding only until the grant funding that has paid for 72 percent of OCW since its creation runs out. For those not familiar with OCW, it is a brilliant piece of intellectual philanthropy that MIT opened to the public in September of 2002. Essentially, anyone in the world can access the same knowledge and information that MIT students are inundated with by classes. Not just a few classes here and there in the most common disciplines ­— as of May 2006 there were 1400 courses online. This is an unbelievable resource that has been utilized by about 60 million people, both on and off the campus. Twenty years ago, the thought that one could log onto a computer and access nearly the entire curriculum at MIT would be unthinkable. But now it can be done.

Yet what of the costs? OCW is more than simply recording lectures and posting problem sets and exams. A dedicated staff is necessary to deal with publishing the various formats of media and keeping OCW updated and relevant. This sums to $4.1 million per year, although OCW has managed to cut about $500,000 from its budget in FY 2009. Since its creation, 22 percent of OCW’s expenditures have been covered by the Institute, 72 percent has been paid for through grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and 6 percent has been covered by donations, revenue, and other sources. Unfortunately, grant funding runs out in two years. With that in mind, while many are asking how OCW can be sustained, others are wondering if it should be at all.

Answering this question necessitates a broader view on education. In the United States, the federal government provides free public education, grades K-12, to every citizen of the country. We take this for granted, but I cannot stress enough how utterly remarkable this actually is. Eighteen-year-olds leave high school with more knowledge than a citizen of the 18th century could even dream of. Knowledge of math that took the Greeks generations to uncover are imparted in a few weeks in a free high school math course to every American student. This model of education is absolutely revolutionary, and most take it for granted.

The model clearly is not perfect, but it is certainly an excellent foundation upon which we can build. However, once a student graduates from high school, a guaranteed free public education ends. From that point on, families must find a way to pay for a college education should a student decide to continue their studies. And, quite frankly, without a college degree, their horizons are extremely limited.

Is this the right model? Sure, families can get loans, students can earn scholarships through hard work and dedication, and state colleges can attempt to increase accessibility by keeping costs low. Yet some students spend the rest of their lives paying off debt from college loans and others cannot even hope to afford it in the first place.

OCW is a way to remedy this inequity. With its immense power anyone, from the student who could not get accepted to any colleges to the senior citizen who is curious about quantum mechanics, can access information that historically has been restricted to those within the walls of a university. Thus, completely free, public education can continue beyond high school. Of course, no degree can be earned through the completion of an online OCW course, but the very fact that the dissemination of knowledge is no longer restricted to those who can afford it is valuable. We have unlocked the secrets of the human genome; we understand the motion of both the planets and subatomic particles; we comprehend things that people long ago could not even imagine. Why should that information be restricted to a select number of people?

Some argue against making this information accessible to everyone. Suppose MIT continues to make OCW accessible, even continuing to expand it. The average student at MIT can then simply go online to OCW and watch the lectures, do the problem sets, show up for the final, pass, and they’ve got their degree. This leads to empty lecture halls and vacant recitations. There is no longer a need for professors or TAs. But, detractors of universal knowledge claim, if all of the professors and TAs are let go, how can OCW continue to be updated?

A related argument states that if anyone can simply go online and access an MIT education, then what’s the point of paying to attend the school? There goes MIT’s source of income.

Finally, some claim that the program is far too socialistic. These people feel that education must be earned. If you work hard through high school, get good grades, develop a good character, and manage to stand out, they claim that you will get into a school, earning the opportunities that will follow.

While respectable, none of these arguments hold enough sway to cut funding to OCW. The first argument will never actually come to fruition; videos for many classes lectures, including 3.091 and 7.012 (Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry and Introductory Biology, respectively), are already posted online following the lecture. While some students take advantage of this, the lecture halls have yet to become empty. And if, hypothetically, such a thing did happen as a result of an OCW-like program, all MIT would have to do is institute a mandatory attendance policy.

The answer to the second argument is quite simple: yes, anyone can essentially get an MIT education online, but you don’t get the degree unless you attend the school. Without a degree in a certain course from an accredited institution, employers will not take you seriously. Claiming that you’re qualified to operate a nuclear reactor because you “watched MIT lectures on it online” is not likely to convince an employer to hire you.

The final argument is more ideological. Once again, the age-old capitalism-versus-socialism debate. Opponents to OCW programs argue that not everyone has “a right” to this knowledge. People have spent lots of money, lots of time, and lots of ingenuity to develop the knowledge that we have today, and this should not simply be given away. Unless you’re willing to earn it, it should not be made available to you.

Such a philosophy would also mean that opponents of OCW would also oppose the current public education system. In the end, what it comes down to is that the rich can get this knowledge while the poor are left out. Yes, a poor student who excels will get scholarships and admittance to universities and rich students who fail will not. However, an average poor student may get accepted but earn no scholarships. An average rich student may also get accepted and likewise earn no scholarships. But the only thing that differentiates these students is the wealth of their parents, the rich student will be able to afford a college education while the poor student will not. Any system that favors wealth over ability, character, and dedication is wrong.

MIT should continue to support OCW because it is the first step to promoting free public education at a higher level than grade 12. The academic climate in the United States is changing. Due to the tough economy, state colleges, which are the government’s attempt to provide an affordable higher education, are becoming more competitive than ever before. The country is also undergoing an “inflation” of college degrees. While a bachelor’s degree would get you nearly any job in the past, a bachelor’s is now expected and it is a master’s that provides better chances of getting a job today. Therefore, people who get rejected from college or are unable to afford a higher education have far fewer opportunities than those who attain a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Some might argue that if just anyone is let into college, then the country will be flooded with unqualified individuals. This is not true — as long as standards are kept high, individuals who are unqualified will flunk out and be unable to earn their degree. It is wrong to deny an individual the right to an education and, as a result, a good job with a livable wage, on the basis that their parents cannot afford it. For logical and moral reasons, free higher level education is a necessity. OpenCourseWare is a harbinger of the future of education, and MIT would do well to continue to ensure its continued availability.

Only Vol. 129

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Why Voting No for the Uxbridge School Project Cannot be an Option

This is an article I wrote that appeared in the December issue of the New Uxbridge Times. Hope you enjoy it!

Why Voting No for the Uxbridge School Project Cannot be an Option

Political issues tend to be dynamic. Many of the issues that Massachusetts and the United States face today are not the same ones that confronted us 8 years ago. Uxbridge, however, has maintained its independence from this trend, with consequences that threaten to ruin everything the town is and has the potential to be. I am referencing, of course, the issue of whether or not to build a new high school. When looked at objectively, it is disgraceful that the building of a new school is an “issue” at all. Let’s look at the facts.

The NEASC committee that recently reaffirmed Uxbridge’s probationary status makes very clear the need for a new building in the very beginning. It blatantly states that the renovations, although useful over the past few years, are a “band-aid approach” and cannot continue forever. With a hint of surprise, NEASC comments that “students function at a high level given the facility restraints under which they have to learn. The students of Uxbridge deserve better.” Yes, they do. A common response to this is a blatant lie. Some argue that Uxbridge is on probation not because of its building, but because of its curriculum or, even more ludicrous, its teachers. Proponents of this claim should read the NEASC report, which states that the most critical challenges facing the school system are “accreditation status, school space needs, modern infrastructure (technology, equipment, etc.), loss of students and money due to school choice, and addressing issues related to residential property tax involved in funding the school budget.” Every one of these directly relates to the need for a new building.

There has also been quite a bit of discussion surrounding the costs. In 2005, 13% of eligible UHS students school-choiced to other public schools. We also lost an additional 406 students in the 2005-2006 year to private and vocational schools. Four hundred six young adults IN ADDITION to the original 13% who could have made all the valuable contributions they’ve made elsewhere HERE instead. And then we had the privilege of footing the bill of $1,136,316 to send them to other towns. It is true that in the short-term the school project will be more expensive. But have the opponents of this project even considered the long term? Pretend the school is voted down. What do they honestly think is going to happen when, not if, Uxbridge loses its accreditation? New families will stop moving here, many families will leave, and those that remain will school-choice their children elsewhere. You then have skyrocketing costs of paying for school choice in conjunction with plummeting property values when everyone leaves. A much shrunken population translates into a depleted revenue base, meaning that Uxbridge will have no choice but to raise taxes and cut services. Isn’t that what the opponents are fighting against?

I am also going to refute another argument which I have heard from people who are clearly ignorant of modern educational standards. Many elderly graduates of the high school have said, “Well I graduated from that building and I turned out fine, so they will too.” That was a long time ago. What was sufficient 50 years ago is far from adequate today. Education is undergoing a revolution; lectures are being replaced by project-based learning, teachers have become mentors, and the rigid corridors are becoming flexible laboratories. People say that the building has nothing to do with the teaching, but they are wrong. The current building does not permit the necessary changes in education to occur.

Let me also share with you certain things you might not know. It is dangerous for students to travel the central stairwell with a backpack on. Hence, additional time must be taken out of the day for students to get all their books for each class. Why is it dangerous? Because the students are confined so tightly that a simple bump from a backpack will send the student tumbling down the stairs. Mentors are told to instruct freshmen on their first day to NEVER wear a backpack. Over the summer, a wall collapsed and had to be completely redone. In late September, there was drywall that fell. And a few years ago the cabinets in a classroom fell on a student. Uxbridge High School isn’t just inadequate for learning; it is a danger to its students. A school should be a safe place where students go to learn, not just academic material, but how to grow into responsible citizens. And it MUST be safe. The facilities at Uxbridge High School do not fulfill their purpose.

I find the fact that I need to even bring up this point quite disturbing. However, at a meeting, one of our selectmen, Cari Robertson, brought up the question: “What value is accreditation and do we REALLY need it?” I would have thought the answer obvious, but apparently I am mistaken. Let me be very clear: without accreditation, many colleges will toss aside your application before even looking at it. Accreditation is a validation that you are receiving at least the state-required high school education and are adequately prepared for college. Another comment made by Mrs. Robertson, which for some reason did not spark as much outrage as Mrs. Pittman’s, was the suggestion that if you want to graduate from an accredited high school, then you should leave Uxbridge and attend another high school. I was, and still am, very offended when I heard this, and take this to be a personal affront to everything that Uxbridge High School and its inhabitants stand for. If there is a problem in the town, a selectman’s job is to fix it, not to give up and abandon one’s constituents to deal with whatever ensues from their lack of action.

A new high school must be built. It is the only option that will alleviate the space issues facing our school district. Even looking beyond the high school, the middle school is overcrowded by 120%. The new high school will allow a restructuring of where grades are located and solve all the problems. In addition, the MSBA has made it very clear that this is the final opportunity Uxbridge has to receive substantial reimbursement from the state. If the school fails this time, Uxbridge’s future is lost. For too long, this town has been split into two distinct sects: those in favor of the school and those opposed to it. Young vs. old. This is not right; it is not what this is all about. The time has come to end the decade of bickering, heal the scars that have torn our community in two, and make preparations for a bright future ahead. However, the ONLY way this is possible is for Uxbridge to unite. There will be dissenters; there always are. But the time has come for Uxbridge to realize that the new school is better for the community as a whole. It is cheaper in every sense of the word. Cheaper in terms of money, and cheaper in terms of the price that our town will pay for lost generations who go elsewhere.

So I am asking you, begging you, to vote YES for the new school. I am doing this as a 2009 graduate, who knows exactly how desperately we need this. I am doing it as a taxpayer, who does not wish to see his taxes skyrocket and property values fall through the floor. I am doing it as a former student who lived and breathed Uxbridge High School for four years of his life, witnessing firsthand the amazing people who are employed there and the passion they have for the high school- not the building, but the body of people. And that body is being severely restricted by the building. UHS made me who I am. The possibility that it could lose accreditation and the opportunity to change lives is apprehensible to me. I am also doing this as someone who wishes to someday return to Uxbridge, but with an unaccredited high school, that would not happen. Most of all, I am asking you as a citizen who has felt every up and every down of the last school project, and the one before that. A citizen who has seen Uxbridge torn apart, but knows in his heart that it can be put back together. The future of the youth of Uxbridge (and the health of your wallet) depend on a YES vote.

We are living in difficult times. No one denies that. But we have a choice before us again: we can allow difficult circumstances to be an excuse for failure, or we can mold the challenging times into a platform for greatness. We can be torn apart, or we can come together. We can be the generation that was defeated or the generation that provided hope for the entire future of Uxbridge. I challenge you all today to make a difficult choice. Make a choice that may hurt in the short run, but will hurt even worse should it not be made. Please vote YES at Town Meeting and again during the town elections in May.

This WILL be the year. Because we won’t let it not be.

-Ryan Normandin

UHS Students for a New High School

Class of 2009

9 More Days of Madness…