How to Make Higher Education More Effective, Flexible, and Affordable?
Have you ever been annoyed by the higher education system? I started with a very provocative question. Don't be scared! It never seemed to you that you were taught not what you wanted, not what you chose on your own. I dug a little in myself, talked with my closest friends and acquaintances, and over a few beers, we generated a new model of higher education that would satisfy the needs of every student. Sounds like a heading - "Beer Activism". Let's experiment, suddenly you will appreciate.
We do not position ourselves as great thinkers and activists. Our opinion is just that of an outsider. We talk about what we see and what many have gone through. Today it will be the topic of education and this post can easily be called - "How to let libertarianism into our education and why this is the only model for growth." I remind you that this post is from the Beer Activism column.
A Little Bit About Myself
I think it's hard to perceive at least somehow my thoughts if you don't have a general idea of who wrote these thoughts at all. Very logical. Therefore, the story of my experience of higher education, what it gave me, and why I am disappointed (spoiler). So, I got my higher education in Eastern Europe and studied at the Faculty of Computer Science. Unlike the generally accepted norms of higher education, my university did not have such a set of specialties as everywhere else.
If all over the world students, like products from a supermarket, collected subjects for themselves according to their liking and desire, in this way they themselves built a training program for themselves, then in my training program the only choice was the choice of a computer class floor. Imagine, I studied computer science, and among my subjects in the first year were the so-called general subjects - philosophy, history, sociology, economics, English (not my native), and other lessons that were useless for me.
They were required to attend and skipping them meant being barred from exams in programming, databases, advanced mathematics, and systems administration (in short, the subjects in which I was going to graduate). It was a forced education that existed for nothing. There was no motivation to learn it, no desire to spend their time on it.
The problem was not even in going to lectures and doing homework in philosophy or history, but in the fact that despite my profile - computer science, these subjects were considered equal in value to some kind of mathematics or physics, and therefore the requirements were appropriate, correspondingly high.
So it turns out that secondary subjects that you did not choose to study interfere with your primary education, interfere with the preparation of projects, the preparation of scientific articles, and basic homework, simply because there is not enough time for this. Closer to the graduation, in fairness, all these subjects withered and fell off like a vestige, but the fact remains - I spent my precious time not developing in an area in which I understand something and good at, but history and Marxism.
All this was exacerbated by the cost of education. In Europe, the chance to get a free education is much higher than, for example, in the USA, and if you didn’t manage to get a grant from the state, then paid education is not so expensive, and you can do without a student loan. I didn’t manage to get a grant, and my parents and I paid for my education ourselves. I paid for education, 30% of which were specialties that I didn’t need, which I didn’t choose, and which took up my time. Here's what pissed me off the most.
Having finally earned a higher education, a bachelor's degree, I did not have the feeling that I had learned what I planned 4 years ago. I have a clear plan, a whole list of what I wanted to learn at university (yes, I'm a nerd). And the maximum that I learned there is 60% of my list. At the same time, I was one of the best on the course and constantly finished myself with additional educational materials, courses, and books and participated in scientific conferences and webinars (you can’t even imagine what a nerd I am).
Perhaps the fact is that everything is always not enough for me, so after graduation, I did not feel that I had learned something, but felt that I had spent 4 years of my life and my parents' money on something that would not be useful to me in life. After that, I found a job and in parallel created a small, tiny IT company. From time to time I thought that other students, millions of students, might experience exactly the same feelings that I do - the uselessness of higher education.
I decided to collect all my thoughts in one place and share them with you. Please note that all my thoughts are related to the specialties of computer science and everything related to it. I am not going to say that surgeons do not need higher education and do not have the right to propose innovations in training programs for other areas, because I do not understand anything about this. Keep this in mind, and in case you forgot, this is a rubric - "Beer Activism".
Every day of my studies at the university, a very simple thought did not leave me - everything that I do here, I can do remotely. Some universities after 2020 have remote learning programs for their students, which is amazing, but the numbers are very, very modest. Studying in Europe can cost a student and his parents up to 42,500 EUR/academic year. Of course, it all depends on the training program and the country (I specifically take the highest bar).
The Education Price Index 2022 (source)
Distance learning will make education more accessible, significantly reducing the price of education. Indeed, with such a training program, the student only needs to provide educational services and nothing more, educational services through online platforms specially created for this, the content (educational material) of which does not need to be supported more than once a year. Minimal effort for educational institutions and maximum benefit for a guy from Bangladesh who has the ability and aspirations, but corny there is no money even for a bus to the airport.
This form of education will obviously be popular among foreigners who will not need a visa and other bureaucratic complications to start studying. I myself went through all these bureaucratic difficulties with a study visa in Europe and I know what it's like to think firstly not about studying, but about whether your visa has expired and how to collect documents for its extension without leaving the country of education.
Such a scheme will clearly increase the percentage of the population with higher education without even increasing the burden on educational institutions and, most importantly, teachers. The load will increase only on the servers of educational institutions or the online platform that they choose to provide educational services to the population.
Most Educated Countries in the World (source)
It seems to me that many universities in the world are thinking about introducing such a training program, at least in a test form. Someone has already implemented such an experiment (for example Open University or the University of Edinburgh), but it is strictly limited, and you want a clearly larger choice, and the choice of this is limited by the fear of educational institutions.
Most universities do not want to implement such a training program, and the reason for this, as I see it, is only one - reputational risks for universities and colleges. Where is the guarantee that the student will take exams, do homework, and project assignments on his own? Where is the guarantee that the lecture is viewed, studied, analyzed, and not listened to at x2 speed while sitting in the toilet or as a podcast during a trip to the subway?
Any university considers such an approach to learning irresponsible and therefore giving a diploma to such a student means calling into question its reputation. After all, the same students who studied full-time, attending each lecture, will receive absolutely the same diploma as students who wrote off or, even worse, bought a finished project work. The lack of an abundance of such distance programs at top universities is how I explain it myself.
How could this problem be solved so that students have such an opportunity as distance higher education in the best universities in the world, which would be equal to a full-time, classical form of education? The question is complex - it is necessary to change the very form of education, which we will discuss further.
Project Based Learning
So, we have the opportunity to study remotely from anywhere in the world without visas and bureaucratic restrictions. Perfect. Now we need to adjust the educational program for this, making it more flexible, efficient, and, most importantly, project-oriented. What do I mean by this coined term?
In fact, everything is simple. Lectures, seminars, and practical classes are all from the last century. Lectures become boring on the second week of study at the university, where students' own projects were much more effective not only in the final year, as basically everywhere, but throughout each semester, instead of exams in February and June (or July, everywhere in different ways).
From my own experience, I know that doing personal projects is much more motivating for students to learn and even stay ahead of the program. When I was doing a personal web development project, I learned JS in a week (yes, not perfect, but enough to get a Junior JS Developer position). The point here is not even in boring lectures but in the motivation of students, which goes out with each new lecture by a pensioner behind a microphone in the audience.
The role of teachers in such a system of education will be exclusively mentoring. In other words, they will act as mentors and assistants - to guide and prompt, and not to chew and force to cram (as in the classical form of education). At the same time, I still do not call for giving up lectures.
Under his personal project, the student has the right to choose a stack of subjects and mentors (teachers). For example, your first project in the first semester will be the development, organization of support and the full launch of the website of a non-profit (charitable) organization. Under this project, the student will pick up a stack of subjects, the study of which will help him to implement this project.
The student will choose - web development (of course), databases, psychology, digital marketing, and SEO optimization (in universities, simple things are usually called complex terms, so you can replace all the items above with more complex formulations). And each course has its own mentor (teacher), as in the classical form of education. At the same time, the student can choose only web development at all, of its choice, but in this case, he takes full responsibility for his project and the rest of the material (databases, marketing, etc.) must be studied independently.
With this form of education, the division of the study period into semesters is not at all necessary. It is enough to decide how many projects there will be during this training period. Conventionally, 8 projects for the undergraduate program must be completed and successfully presented. It doesn't matter how much a student spends on this time, whether it's four years or three months because the completion factor is all projects completed.
Mentors and Students Cooperation Schema
The charity website example may seem too simple. Maybe. In this case, an example of a project would be to build a predictive value of the remaining oil on Earth, based on quotations, its prices, and official, open data on the production of raw materials in every country. An example from real life by the way. My good friends tried to implement this project but didn't complete it (unfortunately). In this case, the student will need a course in mathematical statistics, probability theory, mathematical analysis, and programming (in this case, most likely it is Python and, for example, political science).
Where will the topics for projects and their focus come from? Awesome question and here's my awesome answer - out of nowhere. Topics for projects will be agreed upon by the students together with their mentors. Coordination in this case is necessary not for control, in any case, but to balance the complexity of the project. Conventionally, for a university graduate, a project to write a website with basic JS scripts will be clearly weak. The mentor will prompt and direct if the direction of the project is too complicated or, conversely, too simple.
Project-oriented learning unties the hands of students and allows them to delve into interesting projects and the learning process in this case can hardly be boring. So, the student will be able to realize his ambitions, work for himself, build the right communication with the mentor (because in this case, the student knows what he wants, he knows his end point of the path), and will also be able to independently set requirements and goals for himself, which develops independence and only emphasizes and multiplies ambitions, and does not level them.
Openness and Publicity
In my ideal model of education, publicity, and glasnost play a very important role. Each student's project, final presentation, and source materials (in this case, I mean primarily the code) should be stored in a conspicuous place - on the main university website, at least. This is worth doing for several reasons.
Firstly, in conditions of total publicity, such projects and the students themselves who implemented these projects are the hallmark of any university, this is what schoolchildren will look at when choosing a university to which they will dedicate their 8 (conditionally) projects (mind you, not 4 years of study, namely projects). This is what students will share when looking for a job (although in this case, I believe that employers will be more willing to hunt and take graduates to their place).
Here the principle is very similar to HackerRank. For all the shortcomings of this platform, the developers have a clear vision of what they are doing and where they are going (at least they were going, once). For those who don't know, their platform includes not only the classic sandbox with hard skills training and a top user and leader board but also a job search board where an employer can ignore candidates' test tasks and rely on the ranking in this platform (on As far as I know, Hack The Box has something similar). I think the principle is clear.
Hacker Rank Job Board (source)
Such publicity will positively affect not only the students and the reputation of the university or college but also the reputation of mentors (or teachers, as you like) because the right guidance and mentoring also play an important role in the success of the project. Moreover, teachers very often have a position in some company as their main place of work, and at the university, they are only guest lecturers (during my studies, all teachers were guest lecturers, apparently it was their hobby - hanging out with students).
That is why it is so important to use teachers not as boring lecturers, but as full-fledged mentors and use their experience and skills wisely. Not like at my university, where the founder of a startup in the field of information security lectured on cryptography in the second year of university, although he could teach much more complex subjects (which he was not allowed to teach, since he did not have a proper academic degree - nonsense).
Probably many of you thought about copyright as soon as you read the title of this paragraph. In Europe, copyright is much more relaxed than in the US. Also responsible, but still calmer. Therefore, I mention the copyright clause exclusively for readers from the states. Upon completion and during development, the project becomes public (in other words, an open-source project, because, if you remember, universities, according to my model, publish the source code) like all the code and databases from Kaggle.
When I finished and presented my convex scientific work, I signed a certain paper stating that I leave all rights from my scientific activity to the university, it seems to me, for several years. I can't say exactly how much, I don't remember. For my institution, this was a classic situation and procedure that many of my friends and former alumni went through.
I don’t know how it is at other universities (usually they don’t talk about such delicate things and don’t discuss them among friends), but in my ideal education model, everything becomes public because the student did not use any property of the university (except perhaps for computing power in some cases), which means that the university owns at most your miserable photo, which they will place in your profile. Remember that we are learning remotely, sitting on the beach in Ibiza.
Admission and Competition
Once we have decided on how our experimental students will study, it would be nice to find out how they will enter this training program. I would happily say that anyone and anywhere can enter, but if the university servers or the computing capabilities of another borrowed platform can handle a large flow of students, then mentors are a limited resource that needs to be protected and properly disposed of. That is why the competition for admission will remain the same as in the classical form of education, but it will take place in a completely different way.
You have already understood that a great emphasis in this program is placed on the independence of students, on their ability to solve problems on their own, independently search for information and immerse themselves very deeply in self-education, where mentors and teachers can only guide, but not teach. With this form of education, the student at the stage of enrollment must also show independence, and most importantly, the ability to self-educate and independently analyze a huge amount of information.
Hence, it seems quite logical to me personally the option in which the competition of students is carried out by competition of personal portfolios. Personal portfolios reflect the degree of independence of a potential student - after all, it is there that you can find certificates already received by a person from third-party platforms or companies like Google or Cisco (whose certificates are perhaps the most valuable in the IT labor market), project achievements and everything that indicates that the student is able to work independently.
In this study, all school grades in fact should not be taken into account. Firstly, there is a classic story here that grades never reflect real knowledge, and secondly, what's the point of looking at a student's grades, if in any case, it will have to learn everything anew and much more practical things than theoretical ones. Speaking at scientific conferences (I don’t know if you had such, but I had such - incredible nonsense) is also useless for consideration, because we are focused more on practice, and not some kind of deep scientific knowledge.
So it turns out that only self-obtained certificates and any other documentary evidence of acquired skills or participation in any project work can be evaluated during admission and compiling competitive lists. Like, for example, my portfolio for admissions had a volunteer project to develop a website for a non-profit organization (yes, I gave this example above and this is a real-life example). However, in my time, no one took this project seriously and my school grades were much more valued, which, in my opinion, is not entirely fair.
Highest-paying IT Certifications - Statista (source)
The application of each candidate for admission will be considered separately, manually, by living people, namely mentors, because the student will have to work with them most of the time on projects. At this stage, the creation of a business couple - a student - a mentor will also take place. It is the mentor who will oversee student projects, who will recruit geniuses into the team, and work on projects with them. Therefore, at the selection stage, it is so important for a student to show his independence. If a student is chosen by several mentors at once, then this person is given a choice - with which mentor it wants to work. Everything is like in a Friday night reality show.
Of course, each mentor, like any other person, is unique and good in one thing, good in his own way, for example, in mathematical analysis, and the mentor, based on the applications received from other schools, will choose the student who showed the most independence in the field of mathematics. So, the work of our business couple - a student - a mentor will work even more efficiently, because at least they will speak, maybe not in the same language, but at least in different dialects (linguistic humor, I'm sorry).
I will say right away and honestly, I am just a student and I look at these things through the eyes of a student, through the eyes of a person who sees obvious shortcomings in the education system (in the world as a whole). Higher education is far from being accessible to everyone, although this is always argued with (no need to argue with this, just look at the statistics and the overall percentage of the uneducated population).
Allegedly affordable education is so expensive that most parents save money for it from the moment a child is born. And even if this child was awarded by fate with a great mind, but not with means, it will be incredibly difficult for it to prove itself and hope for a lucky break. This unstable happy accident should be turned into quite clear statistics.
Perhaps my model is not perfect, but it is fundamentally different and this is its plus. With this learning model, higher education will be more accessible and more focused on practice and real-life challenges that students will face upon graduation. With this learning model, the student learns about himself and his mindset after the first project, and will not be in the dark even after graduation. Maximum independence and self-organization will enable students to endure 99% of the knowledge gained after graduation, and not forget half, leaving only everything unnecessary in their heads.
Such independence does not make you lose interest in learning, because this is one of the most common reasons why students leave college or university - they simply become not interested in what they do. I myself was close to dropping out of university, although I was one of the best on the course, I just wasn’t interested in doing the same thing for the entire semester. My rate of assimilation of new information was much higher and I dreamed of a more flexible education system.
Does this libertarian model have a future? I think yes. Most likely, not in such a specific form, but in its other format and with changes in order to adapt to bureaucratic requirements and standards, but some elements may well take root and, most importantly, be liked by modern students and school graduates.
This is the model I got. I expressed all my thoughts regarding higher education in this article and expressed my ideas on how the education process could be made more interesting, more flexible, and practical. Such a model has a very humanistic orientation and its success or failure largely depends on such important human qualities as independence and personal motivation to learn. A model built on these two pillars and without them is simply meaningless.
I will say a very banal thing, which many are already sick of, but the world is changing, and if you educate people the same way as they did a hundred years ago, and maybe even two hundred years ago, then this only slows down our movement into the future. How many people in the world who are suffering from bureaucracy and financial difficulties, but have every chance and potential to receive the best education in the world and learn from the best of the best? A rhetorical question is just for thought at your leisure ...