Legitimizing Open Sources of Education

Skills/Subjects: ,

Recently, an Atlanta law firm sought an in-house courier to ferry documents between buildings, offered $10 an hour for the gig, and required the applicant to have a four-year degree from a university (Rampell). Regardless of the job’s technical requirements, the flood of applications had to be pared down to a single candidate eventually, and the four-year degree has become a major factor in making that cut. Such proliferation of four-year degrees as the key to a job could almost render the degree itself less of a means to a better or more technical job and more of a means to any job. More importantly, this degree inflation means the job market can easily discredit candidates who are technically qualified but simply do not have a college degree listed on their resume often due to financial constraints. Online education has recently made significant advances in accessibility and low financial barriers and would make a valuable alternative to a four-year degree, but this ideal alone will not change the status quo. Rather, it is the proclivity of government, educational institutions, and companies to sway the workings of the job market. Therefore, these influential bodies should more actively endorse education from open online sources, elevating their clout to be comparable to formal sources like colleges and universities.

Financial issues of current hiring trends

Given the current trend of favoring degree holders over non-degreed people, those who are skilled enough or interested in learning how to enter a career can be locked out by expense. Access to education, including tertiary levels, is a fundamental human right, and it should be progressively made available for free, according to the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights  (Article 13). Though this was a signed covenant, it was not ratified in the U.S. and thus not made truly binding; however, the U.S.’s signing does demonstrate its acceptance in ideal. Open sources of education should be free; however, it is difficult to keep exceptional people managing it. While vocational schools and other cheaper forms of tertiary education are necessary, the value of a traditional four-year degree from universities has been exceptional in the last century and is worth the cost. Many U.S. universities, such as Georgia Tech, require four years of curricula with courses focused on their selected major and courses incorporating auxiliary or general fields. This educational framework provides graduates with both specific knowledge and enough auxiliary knowledge to make use of context to adapt their specific skills to complex real-world situations.

Open sources of education, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare, provide the content of a formal education but not the framework. Similarly, less open sources like Codecademy offer a more conventional but very focused framework and less content. The freedom afforded by open sources is difficult to attribute a status of completion or merit by its very nature; however, a middle ground such as edX and Coursera provide both a conventional framework and accessibility that would provide people an affordable route to tertiary education. Such an educational route would significantly improve the marketability of people without a bachelor’s degree, who are more likely to be unemployed (“Education pays”). Moreover, the proliferation of four-year degrees as a baseline dilutes its value and promotes income inequality (Vedder). Therefore, a solution must not further diminish the return value of a traditional four-year degree, whose context of achievement is currently incomparable to that of an à la carte education from open sources. Instead, open source education may better find its place among associate degrees. For example, online initiatives like Coursera and Codecademy provide a graduate-like status to its users who complete a course of action, such as broad curricula for human-computer interaction or specific proficiency with Twitter’s API.

Resource requirements

People who can’t afford a four-year degree need better resources like Coursera to earn credibility in a degree-saturated marketplace. Unemployment has been relatively high since the 2008 financial crisis, but the recovery over the last two years can be attributed to growing investor confidence, including the rate of employment. About 71–77% more people without a four-year college degree were unemployed in February 2013 compared to those with one (“Table A-4”), yet the job openings rate over the prior year increased slightly while the hire rate largely remained constant and in some areas decreased (“Job Openings”). Assuming these open positions received a fair amount of applications, these statistics indicate a mismatch between employers’ needs and their qualifications for applicants.

The trouble with earning endorsement for technical ability, especially to furnish to an employer, is trust. If the four-year degree is the new baseline for even unskilled employment, like couriering, then could the lack of a degree be a major factor in keeping technically qualified people out of work? If true, this requirement seriously hampers an economic rebound by both forcing unemployed applicants to spend money on a degree just for the degree’s sake and draining the talent pool for employers to improve their business. In order to flag applicants as desirable employers need someone or something to trust to make a investment in a new employee. Currently that is a college degree, given its requirements of sustained dedication and standard level of education, plus some specialized knowledge. However, If there exist non-degreed people who are just as qualified for a job as degreed people, then how can non-degreed people earn credibility for their skill without paying for exorbitantly priced degrees?

First, open sources must be identified and verified by the appropriate institutions. The first step is high-level recognition of these sources from the government, as former President Clinton offered in a 1997 memo to the Department of Education and other agencies to encourage adoption of the Internet as a medium for education (Clinton). Next, the Department of Education must support open sources as a means of serving those who cannot afford the soaring costs of education (“Tuition Costs”). They must also coordinate with their sanctioned accrediting agencies to determine a standard method of assessing the quality and provisions of open sources of education. Since the source may include only the most necessary courses in its curricula, if it has any structure at all in OpenCourseWare’s case, the process by which it is accredited will require rethinking accreditation itself. Finally, influential companies who accept open sources of education as worthy of employment would lend a more relatable face to other employers, persuading them at large in practice.

Responsibilities of open education

The sources of this open education must act to uphold the value and accessibility of their programs above all else. High-visibility authorities must also be responsible for endorsing these open sources as a meaningful way of acquiring knowledge to some standard level, just as with colleges intend. Before the Internet, mass media such as radio and television were touted as forerunners of mass distance education, with some colleges adopting them as legitimate programs (Mode). However, the crippling limitations of one-way broadcasting and simple audio and visual means did not yield significant advancements in distance education until the Internet in the late 1990s. At this point, efforts headed by the Department of Education and national-level organizations coordinated the connections of schools to the Internet (Clinton), providing an interactive layer to an information transmission method similar to its radio and television predecessors.

In the last decade, however, universities, including Georgia Tech, have headed independent networks for two-way interactive distance learning programs. Internet access is a common technology, with about 93% of typical college-age people (ages 18-29) reported using it (“Internet”) and all public libraries providing Internet-connected computers. This high accessibility is paramount to ensuring as many people as possible have access to educational materials online. It is also cost-efficient in the long run, given the material can be created, prepared, and posted once to the Internet and it can be accessed unlimited times. With this comes a tradeoff: as material can be freely disseminated, the load on such as system may be too much of a burden to verify individuals’ achievements. Coursera and edX currently use proctors and testing agencies to solve this issue, letting students effectively hire an official to verify their accomplishment. Access to both material and a proctor would not require a persistent Internet connection and would be accessible for people who have extremely slow access to the Internet (up to 6% of Internet users still used dial-up access in 2010 (“Broadband Adoption”)). Public institutions like libraries could participate in peer-to-peer networks by providing faster access to materials the libraries download and seed to the public. This, however, requires that the material be open-sourced and legally distributable. Alternatively, the educational material may be hosted via a web application as with Coursera and Codecademy, though this would require a persistent internet connection and therefore be less accessible.

Current successful implementations of open education

The benefit of open but strictly guided educational experiences like Coursera and edX courses lies in its ability to organize coherent, standard curricula. While OpenCourseWare and free textbooks and other materials can provide a sort of à la carte education without any barriers to what the potential student would like to study, guided curricula can earn accreditation for their specific programs. If a company were to trust a source to provide all-around superior educational materials, they must have a way to trust that the student completed a specific course that others have deemed trustworthy and valuable. A guided open education’s version of degrees, such as Coursera, provides each user with a profile that can be made public, showing each of the user’s completed courses, and edX offers certificates at the program’s discretion.

These certificates are what makes edX more of a vocational school experience, training the student only in some specific field or course of study. This would be especially helpful for computing-based professions such as software development. While vocational schools and early technical training are extremely important, as President Obama mentioned in his 2013 State of the Union address, they do not provide a whole education that includes auxiliary knowledge and provides more than just technical ability. Coursera provides a student user with a more holistic profile, showing the user’s entire educational curriculum vitae on and off the site. This may be easier to show the auxiliary education that a four-year degree would include in its curriculum, enabling the student to show both specific training and related areas of knowledge that would provide the student with the context and critical thinking that many colleges hold above many other qualities of their degrees. However, only a third of graduates acquire such skills to any meaningful extent, and even then it may not be enough when the graduate earns a degree of little substance or relevance to in-demand fields (“Too Much”).


The failure of the tertiary education system demonstrates the necessity to promote and develop a next-generation educational infrastructure. In order to be massively accepted, this infrastructure must be able to provide education on par with a four-year degree. It may also act to prevent the brain-drain effect of intellectuals leaving an undeveloped or developing country for education by allowing the education to be border agnostic. Technologies such as the Internet and computing in general are ubiquitous and are rapidly adopted in most areas of life in the U.S. and elsewhere for their capabilities and efficiency. High-level institutions’ recognition of Internet-based education would probably promote policy and funding for Internet-based resources.

Endorsement of freer (as in speech, not free beer) forms of education would benefit those who can’t access expensive formal education, now more expensive than ever (“Tuition Costs”). Internet should handily overcome issues of accessibility and capability, which have plagued previous media’s attempts at open education; these qualities are especially important for attracting disadvantaged students seeking education. The flexibility and relatively lower cost of using the Internet as a medium for education would also allow educational services to be made available at more flexible costs, commensurate with the context or intention of the service or material’s dissemination. Development of the Internet as a medium for education and earning high-visibility officials’ respect and endorsement for such an educational system are perhaps the best ways to accomplish meaningful reform to hiring standards regarding education. Although, encouragement alone may not be enough, and assessing the economic viability of open education may reveal further issues for consideration. Regardless, there is sufficient evidence to suggest further work must be done to improve the ability of people without college degrees to access credible education sources and improve their marketability.

Works Cited

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