01/15/2014 01:07 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

A One Year BA? Perhaps

Note: A version of the following piece appeared at my Degree of Freedom website upon the completion of my One Year BA project.

Before explaining why I think taking 32+ online courses in twelve months might be the equivalent of a four-year BA's worth of learning, I'd first like to ask readers to take a blank sheet of paper and write down the names of every course you took while in college.

Depending on your age and memory (or lack thereof), you probably came up with rough names of about half to two-thirds of those courses you once sweated over. And speaking of sweat, what might happen if I now asked you to retake the final exam from one of those classes, let's say the same final you passed with flying colors when you first took the course?

If visions of panic and F's are flashing through your head, does that indicate you really didn't learn anything in those courses you spent so much money to have access to and so much time and effort to pass? Probably not, since if you had a week to prepare for that test (or to write a paper summarizing the key points in a class) you could probably brush up on the material, drawing from sources now widely available on the Internet and synthesizing that content with an a priori understanding of key concepts you developed when you first took the course.

Having studied chemistry, I was trained to think like a chemist and, as part of that training, as a scientist (just as someone who studied history as an undergraduate trained themselves to think like an historian). And for anyone now working in the field they studied while in college, the specifics they learned are probably ready-to-hand, especially if they have been put to work on a regular basis since graduation.

This thought experiment is meant to point out the irony inherent in the fact that while we think we know a great deal because of our college degree, when it comes right down to it we really know nothing. Which means that as we evaluate not just MOOCs but any alternative form of higher education, we need to compare them to a residential college experience whose main intellectual benefit was not the classes we took or assignments we performed (most of which we can barely remember) but what that experience turned us into.

So rather than evaluate my One Year BA experience based on the length and rigor of the courses I completed (as I did last time), what would happen if we instead looked at the transformative effects studying a degree's worth of material might have had on this student?

As a philosophy major I now have enough of a grasp on modern philosophical concepts such as a priori knowledge (Kant), ready-to-hand (Heidegger) and irony (Kierkegaard) to make use of them in the analysis you've been reading up until now. And these and other subjects (about which I knew nothing twelve months ago) have been internalized to a point where they can be applied to the subject of MOOCs and Free Learning which I have analyzed over the course of this year through the lens of Kantian, Utilitarian and Pragmatic philosophy (not to mention economics and entropy).

Now the ability to use philosophical ideas in such a way hardly makes me a philosopher. But I do think it's fair to consider myself the equivalent of a graduating senior with a BA in philosophy who is now capable of applying important philosophical principles to different subjects and different aspects of life. And since many college grads move into fields they didn't study as an undergrad, this means the primary benefit they got out of college was the ability to apply rigorous thinking they developed by studying a certain discipline to other categories of activity.

So if you think of a college experience not in terms of what you do but rather as what you become, then how farfetched is it to say my One Year BA was the equivalent of a four-year one?