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The Big Think: The Radical Notion of Making Education Free

Howard Gardner, educator and psychologist is fond of saying, "If you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance.” It's become all too relevant in today’s struggle against a worldwide recession, intensifying global competition, and the ever-mounting cost of higher education.

As Gardner explains in a Big Think interview, the restriction of formal education to the elite made economic, if not ethical, sense until about a century ago, when economic pressures did not require the broader population to be educated beyond basic literacy. Today, however, with massive transformations in the nature of labor and communications, our world has grown far too complex, and the cognitive tools we need to thrive in our daily lives too protean and abstract to justify limiting education to only one segment of the population.

Yet traditional models of education, wherein teachers and students gather within the confines of a school for a set number of years, have been slow to evolve. Access to higher education remains glaringly expensive, and institutions are struggling to develop a form of pedagogy that is dynamic, flexible, and individualized enough to prepare students for the staggering demands of life in this new economy.

At a time like this, when reform is frozen in political impasse, the latent educational possibilities of new media must be taken seriously. Historically used as a means of entertainment, media in the 21st century needs to fulfill its role as a vehicle for a world-class and worldwide education.

Operating in a realm shaped by the ideals of free and open, new media is uniquely suited to democratizing education and distributing resources more broadly than, say, a traditional academic venue. The absurd inconsistency of, for example, being able to access almost any song or TV show for free online, yet having to pay, register, and compete for high-quality information and knowledge-based training, can already be corrected through existing technology.

And yet, the emergence of "smart media" companies gives us perhaps the greatest learning tool to appear in centuries. The ability to combine an array of mediums—from video to graphics to text—and render information in innovative and compelling ways, means that we can do more to keep students engaged than ever before.

Just as importantly, we can tailor this engagement to suit each student's particular educational preferences and abilities—consider, for instance, analytical tracking services that detect how individuals interact with the information being presented to them. These tools are able to gauge and predict, with unprecedented precision, the manner in which a viewer engages with the content on their screen, defining which methods of presenting information resonate most compellingly for each viewer, and the approaches that do not.

These technologies—currently used almost exclusively by online marketers to earn digital advertising networks, such as Google, billions in revenue—have the potential to dramatically impact our understanding of, and expectations for, student engagement. And in this way, make way for a form of media that appreciates and evolves with the individual needs of students in the digital age.

Finally, making education free, engaging, and of the highest possible quality is the driving vision behind Big Think. As eloquently expressed by a recent contributor, Princeton scholar Cornel West (see above): “No school has a monopoly on truth.”

We are lucky to live in a time when revolutionary changes to education are possible. The only question is whether we can embrace new media with enough enthusiasm, intelligence and creativity so that it might achieve its true potential.

Peter Hopkins is the co-founder and President of Big Think, an online multimedia portal committed to developing the growing conversation about where we are and where we are headed.

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