Breaking down basic learning

TEDxQueensU director examines the importance of sharing ideas for all

In the above photo, game designer Jane McGonigal is sharing her ideas in a talk titled “Gaming can make a better world.”
In the above photo, game designer Jane McGonigal is sharing her ideas in a talk titled “Gaming can make a better world.”

When Bill Cunningham, famous New York Times street fashion photographer, received the prestigious French Order of Arts and Letters, he said, “I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. I’m interested in clothes.”

Ideas are always in a state of flux. In the realm of journalism, seeking information from Twitter has replaced the conventional methods of asking for quotes. Publishing is facing virtual competition from retailers like Amazon.

Education is no different.

In 2010, venture capitalist Peter Thiel announced the Thiel Fellowship. Twenty students under the age of 20 were selected to receive funding, guidance and resources over a two-year period providing they drop out of their post-secondary institution.

In 2012, Sebastian Thrun — a former Stanford professor founded a free private online educational platform called Udacity to teach a variety of subjects varying from physics to search engine building.

It’s clear from these examples that learning has evolved.

For the price of basic Internet access, you can have all forms of knowledge at your fingertips.

It’s not surprising that the Internet is alluring and the exhilaration that surrounds this technological revolution is no different from the automobile revolution of the 1920s.

Entire cities were designed differently just because of cars and entire social processes have been recreated through the Internet. In both cases, very few questions were asked about how all of this was affecting our behaviour.

Some of our universities are still stuck in the past.

While there are some incredible programs in place, they make up a tiny fraction of most university programs. Some of the most interesting options are the unconventional ones, but these are rarely funded or adopted by many forms of higher education. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor, claimed that all existing mediums “are an extension of ourselves.” I’m not sure that sitting in a classroom with increasingly more and more bodies is the most practical way to impart a genuine thirst for knowledge and curiosity.

There are those of us who enter university because it’s the next logical step after high school and also a step towards employability and marketability.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of incentive towards being exceptionally human because the system and it’s rigours are built for a robotic style of learning.

The Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) global conferences follow a non-robotic trend of democratizing knowledge and sharing it with the masses through storytelling and art which are two of the most human ways to share.

The premise of TED and the independently organized TEDx events like TEDxQueensU is simple: find passionate local community members, bring them together in one room and get them talking. This talking brings about multiple ideas. This talking brings about learning.

Ideas are free. Their beauty is that one plus one doesn’t necessarily equal two. Ideas can equal an infinite number in which the sum is much greater than their parts.

Artists often hole themselves up to “make good art” in the words of author Neil Gaiman.

Academics often find themselves so engrossed in responding to emails or writing grant proposals that there is little time to collaborate with scholars from different backgrounds and fields.

The same observation applies to governments — both on a student or a federal level. The most important word for me in the TED tagline “Ideas Worth Sharing” is sharing — with good reason.

The focus of post-secondary institutions have shifted towards efficiency and productivity at the cost of creative freedoms. The current education system, at least the one that applies to the majority of students is an archaic system, left over from the Industrial Revolution.

This manifests itself as larger class sizes, increasing the student-to-faculty ratio. A Canadian report recently recommended universities to offer three-year degrees with three to five of the credits to be taken online. This isn’t education for the sake of learning.

Something needs to shift. The model must begin to shift towards an open-source platform because the Ivory Tower of education may quickly find itself not only inaccessible, but also unwanted in an economy where so much is driven by innovation and ingenuity.

Even the graduates of tomorrow won’t be pushing the edge as much as they will maintain the status quo. The question higher educational institutions and those who inhabit them should ask themselves, is whether we’re here for the celebrities (the degree) or the clothes (learning for the sake of learning)?

Asad Chishti is the director for TEDxQueensU.

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