June 24, 2012

Forums for a Future, Professor Renner, USF, Tampa

Let me introduce Professor Edward Renner's free book Forums for a Future. The book is an introduction to a course by the same name offered at the University of South Florida (USF). Anyone can take the course for free through USF iTunes University starting in the upcoming Fall Semester. If you start at the same time and stay on the same schedule as USF students, you can essentially be in the class with them.

Online and blended learning environments are springing up at a fast clip. And, sometimes, they are available free of charge. Is it possible that technology and the goodwill of a university could fulfill the fantasy of a free college education for all? Thirty years ago, I watched my friend Val work part-time to pay her school tuition, without taking out a single loan. I don't think she could do that today. In 2010, the Left Business Observer reported the skyrocketing cost of a college degree with statistics -

Since 1980, the overall consumer price index is up 179%; that for medical care, 436%; and that for college tuition and fees, 827% ... Such rates of inflation leave family incomes in the dust. According to the College Board, posted annual costs—and in this and all subsequent cases that means tuition, fees, room, and board—for attending the typical private four-year institution were 26% of average (median) family incomes in 1979; they’re now 58%
Today, students and their families are going into debt. Big-time. With the advent of for-profit universities, the combination of their high fees, sometimes sleazy marketing practices, and access to federal financial aid, student debt has gone through the roof. Last year, total U.S. student loan debt reached $1 trillion, which is higher than total U.S. credit card debt.

Politicians do not have the clear political will to provide accessible and affordable higher education. Just look at the recent Stafford loan debate in the U.S. Senate. Could it be that technology will come to the aid of higher education? We have a Mote Marine Laboratory intern living with us at the moment. She plans to go back to school to get a Masters Degree in marine biology. While researching where to take a calculus class, she discovered Coursera, which offers free online courses from Stanford University, as well as Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. These classes are taught by regular faculty, but do not yield credit on a transcript. Students have access to short interactive video clips with quizzes and feedback. And students can interact with each other, much as they would when engaging in social media. Here is Coursera's self-description

Coursera is committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it. We envision people throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries, using our platform to get access to world-leading education that has so far been available only to a tiny few. We see them using this education to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.
What a beautiful vision!

But wait; there's more. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently started a joint venture, edX, to offer free online courses from both universities. Here's a wonderful statistic from the BBC: the first online course from the prototype MITx had more students than the entire number of living students who have graduated from the university. There are unanswered questions such as how to grade students, how much student and/or teacher interaction is ideal, whether to confer a degree, and what the revenue sources will be. Even so, when the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT are participating, online learning has entered the mainstream. And given the changing face of social interaction for younger generations with access to social media, this may fit nicely into their idea of what education should look like.

The university students who are striking in Quebec have a vision of a free and accessible college education, much like Coursera's vision. The students are protesting a $1,625 tuition hike by marching in the streets and banging pots and pans every night. The Nation reports that it is North America’s largest and longest-running student strike to date. Much like the Occupy Movement, they have little faith that voting will resolve their grievances. They are looking for a resolution in the streets. Perhaps part of the solution lies in the emerging online landscape of higher education.

Back to Professor Renner's, Forums for a Future. His intent is to "engage students in a series of civic discussions about the economic, social and political issues we must deal with to have a future." He takes on environmental issues, student debt, and economic inequality. In other words, this course takes on many grievances that underlie the Occupy Movement.


  1. Thanks for posting this information. It is getting harder and harder to afford college at a time when it's ever more necessary to have more advanced and specialized education to survive.

  2. Check out Khan Academy, http://www.khanacademy.org/. They say they are "a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere."