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The College Alternative?

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  May 31, 2011 10:26 AM

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In the last few weeks, the media has started to examine the possibility of an educational revolution.

Undoubtedly, this revolution is far in the future, but, in my view, it has been spurred by one, overriding factor: the cost of college.

As tuition skyrockets - want to go to BU next year? room, board and books will set you back about $54,000 - Americans are beginning to question what a college education offers and how it could be replicated without the steep price tag.

One potential answer comes from Salman Khan, who offers pared-down web videos on everything from exponents to the French Revolution. And Khan has attracted some big-name supporters, including Google and Bill Gates (indeed, Gates said his kids watch the videos).

Khan has already garnered north of 50 million hits and hopes to bring his brand of do-it-yourself education to everyone, including community college students.

Another answer to out-of-control tuitions is an online lecture series from really good university professors. The Atlantic features one this month from Diana Kleiner at Yale, who holds forth on the architecture of The Colosseum.

But while digital learning alternatives offer real potential - indeed, I watch Charlie Rose and C-SPAN to learn from economists, authors, tech experts, and politicians - some significant questions remain.

First, what happens to students who don't belong to a community? Can comprehensive, well-rounded learning take place in front of a laptop?

Second, how do you deal with subjects that require more than note-taking? What if you need a paper corrected, or you need to understand what went wrong in your solution to a complex chemistry problem?

And finally, what would it mean for everyone to hear the same algebra lecture, delivered by a professor at Yale or Salman Khan? Would employers be stymied by a bunch of clones? Would everyone start to think the same, know the same facts about history, and interpret those facts the way they were taught by their professor?

College alternatives are worth thinking about - and the sophistication and penetration of new technologies is fast increasing - but I wonder if there is something of inherent value in the college experience.

What do you think?

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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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