Do you ever pinch yourself while reading Wikipedia?
Maybe you should: the ancient encyclopedic dream — easy access to all of humanity’s collected knowledge — is now reality for anyone with an internet connection and a connected device. According to 2012 census data, 74.8 percent of American households have such access at home. Most Americans, then, can learn about everything from Socratic philosophy to the physics of space travel without paying as much as gas money to anyone but their cable provider. What they need is a reason, besides just personal fulfillment, to do so.
As of now, despite the breadth and quality of easily accessible knowledge from sites like Wikipedia and Khan Academy, what we learn online doesn’t add up to anything like the prestige or earning potential of a university degree.
The problem is certification. Some online learning sites, like Coursera, provide grading and certifications that learners can take forward for job applications and the like — these help.
But more comprehensive proofs of competency for knowledge and skills gained online are still lacking. To be widely effective, such tests would have to be affordable. They would have to be given by reputable, freestanding certifiers that hold testers to high standards. And they would have to convincingly measure slippery skills, like writing ability. To our knowledge, this total testing package doesn’t exist right now.
Someday, a useful degree won’t require slogging through the rain to classes or piling up student loans. Until that day comes, we’ll have to keep dreaming.
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