I decided to go back to school this year, although rather than travel the well-trodden path of specialization by obtaining a graduate degree, I decided it was time to re-do my undergraduate BA, this time taking all the courses I never got around to the first time around.
Oh, and did I mention I'm going to cram all four years of college into the twelve months of 2013? And that I don't plan to pay a dime for the experience?
This experiment in alternative education (which I'm calling the Degree of Freedom Project) is possible because of the rise of the Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) that's been the talk of educational and policy communities over the last year.
During that period, stories trying to dissect what MOOCs mean for traditional education have appeared regularly in both the educational and mainstream media. College presidents have organized conferences on the subject. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written on what MOOCs mean for a flattening planet. And, given the speed of rises and falls within the Internet mediaverse, a recent anti-MOOC backlash has started to emerge which challenges the educational value of classes trying to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students simultaneously.
The trouble with these analyses is that they tend to focus on just one aspect of the MOOC phenomenon, or zero in on the experience of one student, one teacher or one institution participating in a particular online class. And absent more widespread data, educators, writers and policy makers tend to substitute their own perspective (be it starry-eyed Internet utopian or hardened skeptic) to an experience that will ultimately consist of someone taking dozens of courses in different environments.
Which is why I've decided that the only way to truly get a feel for what MOOCs can and cannot do is to go through a complete educational experience (which will consist of taking the equivalent of 32 college-level courses). This will allow me to (1) sample courses from all of the current MOOC providers (as well as from other sources not always categorized under the heading of "MOOC"); and (2) see if the free Internet provides access to the variety, quality and level of courses needed to learn the same things I would if I re-enrolled in a liberal arts college for four years.
Oh, and speaking of liberal arts, I've decided to major in philosophy.
Now I know that there's an entirely different debate over the value of a liberal arts degree in today's society (with angst over the value of studying philosophy having become a whole sub-discipline of the field). But I think it's important that these new online sources be evaluated based on how well they can serve students interested in a broad range of subjects, not just the computer science topics that were the original focus of the most popular massive online courses.
Admittedly, there is something artificial about cramming all of this learning into a twelve month period. But keep in mind that the Degree of Freedom Project is really about discovering what works, what doesn't, what's in place, and what's still needed to make online education a successful component or alternative to traditional, brick-and-mortar-variety educational options.
So while I'm learning about Aristotle and Rousseau (not to mention astronomy and statistics -- two courses I'm taking to fulfill my "distribution requirements" for a Freshman year that began in January and winds up at the end of this month), what I'll be writing about are the real-world experiences of someone trying to live through the "College of the Future" today.
You can track my progress here at The Huffington Post, or stop by www.degreeoffreedom.org to follow the whole Degree of Freedom experience.
Now it's off to hit the books (or screen, as the case may be).
Follow Jonathan Haber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DegreeofFree