Why Socrates and Open Education should be Friends

 Is there value in studying Socrates?

Some suggest we should ditch the study of Humanities altogether, others are supportive, some just plain indifferent and scholars like Stanley Fish suggest that the study of humanities has no intrinsic value at all. Though we’ve all heard that the study of humanities is valuable for something, I happen to wholeheartedly agree, and there’s convincing research that supports this point of view — that cross-disciplinary study is of value. Most  recently a study conducted at Harvard University found that,

“The further the problem [to be solved] from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they are to solve it,” K.R. Lakhini, Harvard Professor. [More on this later].

As the announcements of new online learning ventures multiply, though exciting, I am concerned that the possibility of the fading emphasis of studying such works as  Plato’s Cave,  Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and on and on we could go. What I am referring to is the study of humanities. I’m all for much needed reform – an accessible and relevant model for Higher Ed is needed, and I’ve written about promising initiatives recently. However, there appears to be an abundance of mathematics, and science topics within the open learning resources and open online universities, and it’s more than a little scant on the arts, history, literary studies and languages.

If you peruse through Kahn Academy‘s over 3,200 video lectures [all quite excellent] – you’ll find the majority are related to math and science, (granted they are working on expanding the humanities side, and have even partnered with SmartArt), – or how about Udacity (granted the founder S. Thrun is a math genius), or MIT OpenCourseWare (granted it’s a Computer Science school) , and Open Lectures [granted newly launched]. Yet there are the bright spots, Cousera, [one of the newest open university course platforms] has a category devoted to Humanities and Social Sciences, (though only 5 courses so far), and Open Yale Courses which appears to offer a robust selection of history, art and language courses. Encouraging.

Why study Humanities?
Though really, should we bother following the historic path of educating students in the Arts, History, Literature and such? Yes I believe so — and not just to produce a well-informed, literate, highly functioning citizen who makes solid contribution to his or her society, but because people who study a breadth of topics, and who have many interests are better problem solvers when they do. And, we have an abundance of problems that need solving.

An interesting study done recently as mentioned, at Harvard Business School’s InnoCentive (similar to a ‘think tank’) by Professor Lakhani, analyzed hundreds of scientific problems posted by companies that for whatever reason had failed to solve. Lakhni found InnoCentive’s network solved nearly 30 percent of the problems, and that the more diverse the interests of the solvers, the more likely the problem was to be solved. Also fascinating – the study found that expertise [held by the problem solver] in the field of the problem, actually hurt a solver’s chances. (Ronsenberg, 2012).

The Practical Side
This post points alludes to a broader topic which I won’t get into here, but mention briefly, is the purpose of higher education to become an educated individual who can think critically with breadth and depth, which may mean studying within various disciplines, OR is the purpose of higher education to focus on a vocational track and that leads to a specific job path and career? I’d like to say both – but they can be at cross purposes for a young college student. On this same vein, the Wall Street Journal reported this past week  in For most graduates a grueling job hunt Awaits, that the top 5 majors companies are hiring from this year are engineering, business, accounting, computer science, while [sadly] the majors being least hired were from social studies, humanities, agriculture, health science and education (Weber and Korn, 2012).

However, we DO need the scientists and engineers, and those that study social sciences, education and others, and within these groups the innovators, problem solvers, critical thinkers and risk takers to solve the problems at hand just as we have with every crisis that has presented itself in years of past.

In summary, I suggest we study humanities to…

  1. be creative problem solvers.
  2. be informed of history, the parallels to current problems in order to contribute to solutions that are relevant using sound knowledge and rationale.
  3. be able to think with depth and breadth, ask questions, think critically.

I hope we can work towards an OPEN and Online education model that offers humanities, science, mathematics, communication and the Arts that will educate a to produce a bright, informed and intellectual problem-solver.

Further Reading:
Prizes with an Eye towards the Future, Tina Rosenberg, The Opinionater
Why Colleges Don’t Teach the Federalist Papers, Peter Berkowitz, WSJ
Will the Humanities save Us? Stanley Fish, The Opinionater
Why are the Humanities important? Stanford University

‘The World is Open’ – Book Review

I spent part of  Christmas break catching up on my reading –  The World is Open, by Dr. Curtis Bonk was a highlight. 480 pages later – I couldn’t wait to write the review to share with my readers (you know you’re pretty ‘into’ something when you devour a non-fiction book in three days).

“Anyone can learn anything from anyone at anytime” (Bonk, p 7). This opener captures the gist of the book succinctly. ‘So what’ you may ask?  You likely have heard the likes of this before, education is changing … etc. etc. … online learning, e-books, open source, etc., etc. etc.  But really, how will these new technologies effect higher education? When?  How does this effect educators like you and me?  I’m not sure about you, but I’m seeking answers to these questions. Though Bonk doesn’t respond directly, he does in his enthusiastic and energetic writing style describe and give real life examples of ten promising technological applications, systems and trends that are revolutionizing education, which is why I enjoyed the book to extent I did, it’s encouraging and enlightening at the same time.

Bonk describes the ten trends in a framework named WE-ALL-LEARN. I am not a big fan of  using mnemonics in this type of situation, however it does work. Below are the ten, and I’ve highlighted three in blue text that I feel have the most potential to impact Higher Education in a big way (though there are several within the ten). Below the list, I describe e-learning and blended learning (opener #2), concluding with what higher education institutions should seriously be thinking about ( in my opinion).

world is open cover

Ten Openers: WE-ALL-LEARN (Bonk, p 51)

  1. Web Searching in the World of E-books
  2. E-Learning and Blended Learning
  3. Availability of Open Source and Free Software
  4. Learning Object Repositories and Portals
  5. Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
  6. Electronic Collaboration
  7. Alternate Reality Learning
  8. Real-time Mobility and Portability
  9. Networks and Personalized Learning

#2: E-Learning and Blended Learning

Though Bonk covers all aspects of e- learning in his chapter ‘E-Demand Around the Globe’,  Bonk’s statistics regarding online education (higher-ed) in for-profit schools, public  and private universities emphasize the growth and expansion of  online learning.  In fact many schools have taken the plunge and included online learning in long-term academic planning. In 2008 state leaders in Minnesota introduced a plan to offer 25% of college credit courses online by 2015 (Bonk, p 128). University of Illinois (UIS) is a trail blazer in offering Online programs beginning in 1997. UIS now offers 35% of its course credits online, with sixteen degree programs, four blended programs and master’s programs in several disciplines. These are only two examples of many.

Bottom line for Higher Education: “Online learning is now just an expected component of higher education services” (Bonk, p 128).  E-learning is not a trend but a reality. Colleges and universities, both public and private need to develop, if they have not already done so, a comprehensive strategy that embraces online learning, incorporating online credit courses and degree programs into the institution’s short and long-term academic plans.

I have other strong views about #4 and #6 from the list, but alas time has run out, I’ll save my musings on these for another post.  However, if interested check out worldisopen.com, there are some interesting discussions. Also invaluable, are the listings of resources listed by chapter, under the tab FREE STUFF and  RESOURCES. Check it out.

Debbie 🙂


Bonk, C. J. (2009) The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.