The Web Is Transforming Learning

By Fatmanur Erdogan, for the Hurriyet Daily News

Every year, about 1.5 million Turkish students take the university entrance exam. Those who score at the top get to enroll at the best universities in the country.  The ones who don’t score as well don’t go to the top schools, and many of them won’t go to university at all.  The competition is incredibly intense, not because the top schools offer a uniquely superior educational experience, but because they offer a brand name the students can carry with them for years to come.
In the past, that brand name was practically a guarantee of lifelong prosperity and comfort.  Students knew there would always be jobs waiting for them after graduation, and later in life, whenever they needed a new job, opportunities would pop up quickly.

But that perception isn’t really true, at least not anymore. Take a look at one of the most popular features on the Wall Street Journal recently, the “Laid Off And Looking” blogs (blogs.wsj.com/laidoff).  These blogs are a bold experiment in publicly chronicling the job searches of elite executives.  The writers were top executives at some of the top companies in the world, and they are writing very personal accounts of the daily frustrations of their job searches.  Look at some of their bios, and you’ll notice they went to elite universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, many of them graduating with advanced degrees like the MBA.

What does their experience tell us about getting an elite education? It shows us that these days, graduating from one of the top universities might increase your chances of being asked to write publicly about your humiliation after you get laid off, but it won’t keep you safe from the hatchet in the first place.  A degree from a top university doesn’t guarantee you a permanent spot in the economic elite anymore.

Fortunately, though, the flip side is that if you don’t have that top university degree, you are no longer permanently locked out of the economic elite. The world is becoming more flexible and open, and that goes for education, too.  In-school learning is slowly becoming a thing of the past, as more and more universities are making their courses available to the public online.  It’s a freer learning environment, and anyone with the passion to learn and the motivation to go after their dreams can get access to advanced coursework now.

You might think the top universities would resist this trend, because when so many people are fighting for expensive spots in their classes, why would they give them away for free? I am glad to say, however, that the elite universities are actually at the forefront of this movement.  For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) puts all of its lecture notes, exams and videos online.  That means if you want to take an MIT course in physics, or an MIT course in architecture, you can do so, and it’ll be free.

MIT is not alone in this. Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and over 200 other universities have joined this initiative. I personally took one of these online courses recently, a psychology class at Stanford.  There I was, a full-time working professional in Istanbul, and I was taking a course from one of the world’s top universities, on my own time and in my own home, absolutely free.

I don’t dismiss the potential value of attendance at and a degree from one of these universities. If you see yourself being employed by a company for your entire professional life, you will probably need that degree on your resume.  However, be aware that even after you have worked so hard and spent so much money to obtain those credentials, they can no longer guarantee you the professional success and stability you are seeking.

For those ready to take a more entrepreneurial approach to life, remember that what really puts the top schools at the cutting edge is the creativity, curiosity and passion of their students and faculty. The web is remaking education, and entrepreneurial learners now have access to the same resources enjoyed by students at elite universities.  The future belongs to those who have the passion and the drive to take hold of those resources and apply them to their world.

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