The School of Continuing Education
By Kirstin Butler
People crave information — you’re reading this, aren’t you? And the fundamental human drive to seek out more and more knowledge has only grown since ur times. We’re still blown away by the recently mentioned 34-gigabytes-of-data-per-day diet of the average American.
One area where we’re really excited about the possibilities of on-demand data delivery is education. (Excitement we’ve voiced in a recent contribution to GOOD Magazine.) Whether it’s using online media to organize collective learning in the analog world, or the classes themselves take place online, the Internet enables people to seek out and receive education in ways they never could have before. These opportunities for lifelong learning take advantage of simple supply-and-demand economics — those who want to learn finding those who want to teach — for every conceivable subject, and then some. (Shoe Shining 101, we’re looking at you.)
Here, then, are five examples of extension-style schooling that can change the way we think about acquiring knowledge.
UNIVERSITY OF THE PEOPLE
The first tuition-free global education with real academic cred, University of the People was founded by e-learning entrepreneur Shai Reshef with the developing world in mind. It may not have the brick-and-mortar facades of McKim, Mead, and White but that’s precisely its point; thanks to open-source courseware and without the need for endowments, the University can focus on delivering degrees at the lowest cost possible. Requirements for attendance include a high school degree, fluency in English, and an admissions fee of $15 to $50 on a sliding scale depending on a student’s country of origin.
University of the People‘s first class of 178 students representing 49 countries enrolled in its grand educational experiment in fall of 2009. While the University’s results are as up in the air as its curriculum, we’re optimistic about what this virtual institution heralds for the future.
The product of LaidOffCamp, a BarCamp-style event for unemployed New Yorkers, (un)classes offered its first class in March of 2009. (It was “How to be a digital nomad,” a course on sustaining an itinerant lifestyle while still holding jobs.)
To set up an unclass, you register with the site and then create a new course listing, either as a prospective student or as an instructor. Other people in your area interested in the same topic can join in, and since the process is self-organizing, the group determines when and where to meet. Most unclasses are one-off experiences, since the site bills itself as casual learning for people “who have hectic lives and struggle to find fun and interesting ways to satisfy their intellectual curiosity in the limited free time they have. Think of it as educational snacking, a low-touch way to explore topics that interest you.”
(un)classes has built a base around major cities in the Americas from Bahru to Vancouver (with a strong skew toward California), offering a range of un-course options from Ayurvedic cooking to Zen meditation.
With its roots in DIY, craft, and hacking culture, Skillsharing has gained adherents during the current recession as a way to acquire new skills without dropping a lot of dough. Volunteers donate their time and talents to organize a weekend of events that share a distinctly makers’ faire flavor; many of the offerings involve bartering and tinkering, whether with kombucha or Wii remotes.
At a recent Skillshare event in In addition to Brooklyn, participants chose from a session listing that included hands-on workshops in bicycle repair and screenprinting (above, respectively). Other major Skillshares exist in Austin and Boston, and we bet there are more — let us know in the comments if you’ve shared your skills elsewhere.
Supercool School bears the tagline “Start your own online school,” and while it doesn’t provide physical materials, it does come with a host of virtual tools you’d want to create and customize an educational experience. The e-learning startup is based in Berlin, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, where its founders are located.
Once you sign up to start your own school, you can choose between a free hosted version, which accommodates 15 students, or subscribe to access Supercool School‘s more robust suite of media options. (There’s also an enterprise-level service for heavy-hitting educators who really want to have more control over their online learning environment.)
Just think — where individuals and small collectives once had to raise extensive funds as endowments, they can now open a school with a series of mouse clicks. Perhaps the future of the Internet holds more than LOLcats after all.
With big-time investors like Channel 4 and Esther Dyson, and unique monthly site visits in the hundreds of thousands, the UK-based School of Everything is strongly positioned as a cross between a networking platform like Meetup.com and the online classifieds behemoth Craigslist.
A marketplace for learning opportunities, the School of Everything lets you browse by location or topic, and then register your interest in either learning or teaching. Instructors have the option of charging for lessons, so the site lends itself to the kinds of listings you were likely to see tacked to bulletin boards in earlier years, with a strong showing in arts instruction and tutoring topics. School of Everything recently received a contract from the British government to grow domestically, bringing more of everything to those who want to learn it.
We know that these five initiatives are but a sliver of today’s e-enabled education landscape. If this post has tickled your passion for lifelong learning, you might enjoy one of our favorite websites, Open Culture — a fantastic compendium of free and low-cost learning opportunities.
Just don’t blame us when you emerge hours later, bleary eyed but much stronger on the fundamentals of biology.
Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.
Published January 21, 2010