In the modern age, students engage with education in multiple ways right from getting admission up to graduation. One one hand are the traditional external means; the actual university, the teachers, the books and the social mingling of students. On the other hand is the online campus; the online courses, the virtual teachers, the online educational material including library, learning and support resources. Every student today engages with both these forms of education.
With the coming of age of online education we had expected that we were on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning; that a vast pool of educational resources would be available for all on the Internet, open and free for all to use. We believed we would be creating a world where each and every person on earth could access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge, that educators and learners would create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.
We believed that it would be the means to educate the masses openly, cheaply and effectively and create educated and informed societies worldwide. What we are witnessing however, is rather the opposite. Education has become a mere commodity and universities are openly and unabashedly selling education for profit. All of us are so enchanted with computer mediated online instruction and the idea of this revolution in technology that we turn blind to the commodification of education that this revolution has spawned.
Education is a process that necessarily entails an interactive and interpersonal relationship between people, the student and teacher and between the students themselves. It aims at individual and collective self-knowledge. When people look back upon their school or college days they do not remember only what they learnt there. In fact, they remember their teachers, their class mates and events related to them, and how they made a difference in their lives.
Relationship between people are central to the learning process. There is something different in learning together in a real class-room, in asking questions, getting feedback from teachers thus learning about and getting one’s own sense of self. Education after all is not just getting information but a whole lot else. The mind is stimulated and honed in many ways, in the laughter in the canteen, in the small talk between students. Education is the total integration of knowledge with the self, in a word, self-knowledge. Here knowledge is defined by and, in turn, helps to define, the self. Knowledge and the knowledgeable person are basically inseparable.
Education must be distinguished from training . Training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that it can be used for some specific purpose. Here the knowledge is usually defined as a set of skills or a body of information designed to be put to use, to become operational, only in a particular context. It does not add to self knowledge and remains separate from the self. Online courses can give us “training”, they cannot really educate us in a fulfilling fashion.
A commodity is something created, grown, produced, or manufactured for exchange on the market. In the current climate of monetary-driven social values most educational offerings, on the net, are divided into units of credit and exchanged for money. The commodification of higher education, then, means the deliberate changing of the educational process into a commodity for the purpose of commercial transaction.
One of the commodities is the degree itself. Students take expensive loans to buy a degree. Students should aim to acquire skill, knowledge and understanding. However, their efforts are to acquire certification of competence (degree, license, certificate), get references and a portfolio, get an interview, get a job, hold the job, and save for the future. Most online courses are just this packaged commodity which people buy and complete to show the level of their ‘education’, which in reality and in itself does not add to the transformation of the individual.
Another sad fact about online education is that though it may be more convenient for the minority of students who are adept at writing and are self-disciplined in completing the courses, the vast, vast majority of online enrolls do not complete or drop out. Perhaps there is no personal appeal to hold them there. Perhaps the whole clinical, impersonal environment of it all puts them off. Online ed is not a viable system for all, is still regressive financially, and produces massive amounts of course failures, dropouts, or incompleteness.
One reason for the commodification of education generally is perhaps the general view that it is important for economic growth, the notion that education is the driver of economic growth. That may be true to a certain extent but that is not the complete story.
It must be realized that it is only one aspect of education, not the entirety, and it does not deserve the importance which it now enjoys. There are cultural, spiritual and intellectual purposes of education too. We impoverish ourselves by our indifference to these aspects of education beyond mere material survival.
We lose some values and purposes and replace them with the values and purposes of the market place. Can we derive happiness from that? That is the moot point which must be mulled over.