TED Conversations

Mahadevan Venkatakrishnan

Founder & Managing Member, www.whereismychild.in

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Another Groundshifting Opportunity - Can we make Education free?

With significant amount of distilled knowledge base already available across the world in easy to access formats, plus the growing population which is either unemployed or possess a volunteering mindset, if we create an online mechanism where children across the world learn for free - will this not reduce drop out rates, bridge knowledge gap and help the poor look to a better future?

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    Jul 2 2011: We must make education free to people at least to age 18 in all countries.
    Education must not be provided as a means to indoctrinate children to Religion as the Rule of law.
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    Jun 22 2011: Education is based on two misunderstanding:
    -scarcity of the expert ; was true 5000 years ago , is NOT true today
    what is scarce is not know how , but teaching/coaching methodology
    -need of discipline , in terms of restricting people into space and time , to "force" them to learn.
    ANother false assumption today
    Both assumption are self-replicated by human ego and illusion of conquering the mind of childrens , before they
    get in control : the foundation of both Islamic , and Christian method. and all of the "religion" of the world.
    Today , with NO scarce know-how , no need to restrict space and time , and technology ubiquity we can design a NEW education , or , better , learning process , through which knowledge should be offered , for free , to everybody that , voluntarely want to acces it.!! This will boost learning productivity , create some inequality ,
    BUT , if we will make concepts of LEARNING METHODS (NOT TEACHING !!!!!) available to everybody , this will change the landscape.
    The new Mozart of this world will always bubble up .
    And the Einstein of this world will mature , later , (ALbert was graded insufficient in math , when he was young..)
    Learning is a step function , not linear , and the illusion of the school system is false , and dangerous , in fact it ruin the life of thousands..
    The re-design effort is humongous , and will probably take centuries........ or months
    We should follow the web model. Millions of part time learner supporter , can do better than few professors.
    GO and visit the Masie Center web-site.
    and Good luck.
    Dott. Prof. Alberto Bazzan
  • Jun 25 2011: This would be relatively easy for any western govenment to pay for. The choice not to, I would imagine, is based around the saying "knowledge is power"
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      Jun 29 2011: The power lies in the hands of the people, especially in democracies. This turns the question into: "When it comes to development aid, why do the people of the UK refuse to invest into online education portals instead of doubtful payments and shipments? Why do the German people? Why do the American people?"

      What incentive does the individual have to help? Is he really interested in sustainable change? Or is his intention merely to purchase a nice conscience and favorable self-image? I know people who openly state that its the act of giving that matters to them, not whether the money actually ends up where it was promised to. But I think that this mindset applies to many more, only that the other people just don't admit it openly.

      The "problem" with making non-material offers is that it doesn't provide the same emotional gain compared to patronizing spendings. I say this is the real reason why any Western peoples refuse to provide actual help on a large scale.

      Note that there are non-governmental projects that go into this direction. Wikipedia is surely the most prominent example for this, but there are many more which are less well-known. However, these are the works of only a fraction of the people. The campaigns by their political representations are not going into this direction at all, because that's not what the members of the society want. And unless these citizens change their minds, why should their representatives (!) do so?
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      Jun 29 2011: Jack, your comment mistakenly assumes that western governments have great educational systems. By your argument, they have the money and desire for power so they should have great educational systems. Unfortunately, they do not. The discussions about education here in TED should be evidence enough of that.

      Its not a matter of money. Teaching is not so simple. Online courses are only a part of the solution and do not work for many learning styles.
  • Jun 25 2011: Education IS free : it's called the internet.

    It is a limitless resource of facts, opinions, and content, and it's constantly growing. Already you can google just about, anything, and get at least a result--if not satisfying information. As technology becomes more and more efficient, and as new generations grow more and more tech-savvy, the internet can only become a better spreader of knowledge.
    Institutionalized education is seriously passe; it has to fall apart soon. There's simply no need for it! After obtaining a very basic skill-set that allows you to learn on your own and function in society (maybe first grade), then school is nothing but unnecessary and even detrimental to a person's acquisition of knowledge. Everything you ever learned in college, high school, and prior is available--and much more.

    Besides, let's face the competency of the vast majority of teachers.."Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching."

    As for great lessons, influential teachers, and unique learning experiences, there may be no substitute, but really, isn't it ideal to take in information from various and as many sources as possible, and then come to your own conclusion on something?

    But, if you had a great time in high school and you sat through every class hanging onto your teacher's every word, and all those words really meant something and you had a great learning experience, then by all means object .
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    Jun 19 2011: I think it would be a fantastic idea and would, like you said help the poor to look for a better future. However, the reality is that not only getting computers, the poor would also need to have the net available to them which could be a problem for most do not even have electicity or electricity that isn't reliable. But besides this, I think some governments would not welcome it at all. There are many out there who don't want its people to beducated, for then they would begin to "think" and that would lead to rebellion. So how would these problems be solved?

    So a great idea YES....and could it work? YES.... but maybe not as you would like to envision it. However, if you do get this going, you can count of me to help as I am retiring next year and don't quite know yet where my next path will lead!
    • Jun 25 2011: Its a Noble Idea!!!!
      I agree with Linda: the "poor" in developing countries do not have access to even the basic necessities of life, for them,computers and internet are nothing more than a fiction.Go to the interiors of rural world you will see the world so different than our "perceptions" and "maps" change. To educate the poor one has to go the field and work with the conventional methods before graduating to use of innovations in technology.
      Presently, this idea is noble and great but ahead of its time.
      Good luck with the idea,its ideas which transformed the world.
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        Jun 25 2011: thank you. i am sure this idea will come true one day, and when it does it WILL transform this whole civilization. And i don't think it is ahead of time. The time is just right - look at the whole world situation now. The hardest hit are the poor of the poor. And without even the basic education, they are left to suffer silently by the educated mass - all of us who fortunately had access to some form of education. Like someone said, 'Education is a fundamental right. Educating is noble. Only the educated are free!' Let's work towards making education free.
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    Jul 15 2011: I guess education is free already with the current information flow available to all
    may be you mean if certifications get to be free

    what is a certificate?
    it is a some sort of guarantee that the person, in question, is qualified to performing certain tasks based on certain standards

    I don't think this can be free, what is education currently but a mechanism for money circulation?
    if there is no money, the mechanism will fall down dead
    who runs the system but organizations seeking profit, and more profits under the title of better facilities
    I think, the motive should change, for the organizations running education, the motive was monetary driven, I really don't know how to change that
  • Jul 1 2011: Education is already free. I can learn more from the internet than sitting 8 hours in school.

    The problem is 1) There is no accreditation. Even if i learn everything on the net there is no company, school or government institution that will accept my credentials.

    2)Real learning can not be paid for. How do you learn to cut wood, ride a motorbike, sew? You don't learn that online or from a teacher. You have to do it yourself. Experience is something not even the internet can do.

    3)The teachers union are strong. They won't work for free. Football coaches are stronger they get paid loads.
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      Jul 1 2011: Someone paid for the internet, and the tool you are using it on. :-P

      1.) Agreed
      2.) Agreed, mechanical education is important.
      3.) Support unions
  • Jun 30 2011: I recently came across a site called: http://www.academicearth.org/.

    They post lectures by professors from various universities free of charge. It would be interesting to know their business model.
  • Jun 23 2011: You have to define education if you want a good answer.

    I would argue that true education is free. Every time you meet someone new you are learning something about the world that is valuable. Life experiences is true education.

    But as far as writing, arithmetic and reading, I think that the internet is a great tool for children, but can you learn how to read by reading? Can you learn math without someone answering your questions?

    Free online lessons already exist. But I dare you to study a subject you've never even heard of and learn about it purely by reading posts online. There will always be a need for a teacher or inspiration.
  • Jun 22 2011: There is enough material and technology available to make education - both knowledge and experience based - available to every child next to free. If the political and education mafia allows that - that is. This is not really an issue of volunteers or ( of course that matters ) but of a fundamental shift in priorities. Much like our fascination with Green Planet - we miss the woods for the trees. If we educate our population it will be easier to manage fundamentals at a global level. Education and Health ( along with right to clean drinking water and hygienic toilets ) must be made available free to all. Experiments showcased here at TED shows how children who never saw a computer - when exposed to one without ANY intervention - figured how to use it within days. All we need is to make the content available in an interactive framework and the will to educate the child, then it can happen. This however is not a desirable goal for the ruling class all over the world. An educated population is not exactly easy to manage. Look at the largest democracies US and India and you will see the serious lack of will to educate every citizen.
  • Jun 21 2011: Hinduism has a very interesting concept, it urges you to learn from everyone, it also states that everyone has something that they can teach. If we embrace this ideology, education will become free. This will ofcourse not award us certificates or degrees. A point to ponder here would be, are certificates / degrees equivalent to education?

    To answer more specifically, Yes, I agree that we should all cultivate a culture that believes in educating any who are willing to learn. However, I am a bit skeptical if this alone will help reduce drop out rates or give the poor a better future. These I believe are a result of too much importance being assigned to paper degrees and not education.
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      Jun 21 2011: Chandramouli
      I think you hit on a crucial point of separating education from degrees. I would consider degrees a form of education but not equivalent to education as it make up a small part.
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    Jun 21 2011: First, nothing is free. Everything has a price. Personally, I would volunteer my time to help implement an universal education system.

    Education cannot be "free", in reference to your idea, people would have to give up time to help so they are giving up money by helping so truly education does cost something. It cost sweat, tears, and anxiety for both teachers' who educate and students who learn.

    All kids having tablets (personal computers of some sorts), and the teacher using the internet to it's fullest potential for information/education in all fields of academia (or a better system, not academia-like).

    This will education cheaper and more effective to give to all children in the world. Just need wi-fi or some form of wireless internet. These are not expensive ideas.

    One year of text books cost as much as laptops' cost today in America. The biggest cost of implementing this education globally would be building the facilitates, hiring the teachers, and organizing the lessons (their would need to be people hired to create simple, fun and informative educations, or their should be).


    The internet is where kids can learn "free" or really cheap-like. There are already people who volunteer time and effort to helping others learn, and do upload it on the internet. Any lesson you would like, search it.

    All we (people) need to do is to give every kid internet with a "cognitive awareness" teacher.

    A teacher who understand both psychology and neurology in regards to how we learn and receive information, and also to practice/discipline in logical reasoning, critical thinking, and "skepticism".

    What do think?

    Just my thoughts.

    There are other conversations like these already made, should go read through them.
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    Jun 20 2011: Mahadevan, since you are already researching your idea for one year now, I surmise you have already scoured many books and the internet in firming up your project. I think it would be a great idea to distill all the TED talks and conversatons that can relate to education and gain a deeper insight into a more effective and efficient education system. I think Simone is planning a similar project and other fellow TEDster's professional background like Linda's can also help. We might need a more focused process of our discussions and you or TED can probably open a separate discussion forum. What do you think fellow TEDsters?

    We all know that education has a foundational impact to ourselves and to the world and I think that all efforts that we can give in these area, be it in our current educational systems or a groundshifting idea like Mahadevan's, have an exponential impact.

    Mahadevan's idea have a great potential today because of current 2 billion internet users (and growing) and the many educated professionals like TEDsters around the world. There are some crucial legacies that we can impart to our world and a good education is one of them.

    Like the many of the issues around us, they all deal with the two resource of our powers - our humanism and our minds aggregated by systems that we enable. Our academic education today need to be supported more by cultural education or we end up with systemic problems like consumerism or its ultimate effect in inequalities and unsustainability. We reinforce our family structures because of its crucial support in early education like Linda noted, among many other vital benefits that a good family provide.

    At any stage of our lives continuing education like what TED is doing (spreading worthy ideas), is always crucial in transforming our world. Education is an important part of our solution strategies to right our planet. http://bit.ly/SolutionStrategies
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      Jun 20 2011: You are right Joe. I think I will open a discussion forum with help from TEDsters. It will capture the learnings/thoughts/ideas and bring together the people across the world. I am sure i cannot do it alone and will need hundreds of thousands of hands, legs and minds! Thank you for your support. Good day.
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    Jun 18 2011: When it comes to education, I'm always thinking about autodidacticism and how it is not sufficiently integrated into western educational systems. Although I don't think teachers are "bottle-necks", I do believe there need to be more ways to encourage self-motivated learning processes, because in fact, learning gets a lot harder when you're out of school: you're not forced to do it any longer and there is no generalized system with "levels" of education you can achieve. Speaking of levels: I think modern technologies like the internet, but especially e-readers and cheap laptops, can make a change -- if we find a way how to encourage, remunerate and value education and knowledge.
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    Jun 18 2011: Education is already practically free and has been for a long time if one has the will. Consider that Abraham Lincoln had less than two years of formal education. We run into problems when my or my children's education becomes somebody else's problem rather than mine, and we value expensive degrees and paper more than thought and accomplishment.

    Assuming you have rudimentary skills like reading, which one should be able to learn from parents, I think this is as a fine a jumping off point for an education as any:
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      Jun 19 2011: Agree with you Mark, and the world now is actually moving toward free education, but we should seek for a better mechanism & indeed a more effort is needed to achieve Venkatakrishnan's wonderfull Idea.
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      Jun 19 2011: Mark, funny (but not the ha ha kind!) that you mentioned Emerson and his Self-Reliance as a jumping off point, as when my students critiqued my class last year, many suggested that I begin with this and not wait until I hit the Transcendental Era. They not only felt empowered by his words, but they also felt closer to their peers as I had set up the room in an inmate semi-circle with desks close together and chairs snugged up to them so they could share desk space with me in the middle, and it became one of those bonding moments you do not easily forget. So next year I will take their advice and begin our journey together with this work.
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    Jun 18 2011: I'm all for technology in the classroom - it is heralding great changes that have been overdue for sometime.

    I don't believe that what you are suggesting will fix education, but I think it has merit.

    Ultimately, all things digital are opening up some fantastic opportunities but I do believe that people are still the most important factor in the equation.

    Independent and personalised learning is greatly enhanced by ICT. Students are able to learn at their own pace thanks to access to knowledge that is no longer bottle-necked through a teacher at the front of the classroom.

    But, a good teacher is worth 1000 gigabytes per second..
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      Jun 19 2011: I agree that this would be an excellent opportunity for so many out there as the whole world and what it has to offer would then be open to them; but one crucial element is that they would have to have the NET and in many areas of the world, that is still not a possibility...and it is the have's vs the have not's and it is the latter that could benefit the most.

      But I also agree that not even 1000 gigabytes per second could replace a good /great teacher. We have a BIG BUSINESS here in Florida that has now grown internationally named Florida Virtual School....and it is for k-12 and to be honest, I have a problem with that, for how is a child to learn social skills if his/her entire schooling is behind a screen? Yes there is interaction between the teacher (via phone calls and emails and chat) and other students (via chat and virtual clubs), but it is not the same as face- to - face. And to me again, I really have a problem with seeing kindergarteners only behind a screen...
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        Jun 19 2011: I clarified the point above. The NET is only an information resource plus a media to distribute a standardised form of information/curriculum if needed across 1000s of locations. thank you.
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          Jun 23 2011: A standardised curriculum is not the answer - it is a huge part of the 'problems' with education that people have been talking about recently.

          Ultimately, standardisation is a form of control.

          Ditch curriculum. Content is available on the internet. Teach skills - like the New Zealand curriculum where a big focus is on Key Competencies, rather than content delivery.

          (Private business is already locking down the future of education and it's not looking very free)
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    Jul 14 2011: In this time the current trade in education has become more than education to become
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    Jul 14 2011: I think the notion of "royalty" and its various sub-sets is premised on having an 'uncommon" knowledge.If all knowledge is made common,those who currently survive solely on their claim of having unique knowledge wil be required to preform a usefull function in society. I think we can expect maximum resistance to free education from this -powerful-class.
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      Jul 17 2011: I agree Shawki. I think this is important to keep in mind when creating a model for free education. thank you
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    Jul 13 2011: Yeah Sometimes I also feel the same that there should be , but got confused with the thought that Why to almost duplicate something when that thing is already available free of cost for all.

    For instance, We dont see any other free encyclopedia than Wikipedia on the net. And wiki is doing a great job already.

    Hope it make sense would like to know your views.
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      Jul 13 2011: Manish,
      It will be good if you read some of my responses...Wiki and other such things are important, but we need to create it by design - the free education system and not by default. The way the literacy divide is evolving, free education has to be structured in a way it can be of high quality, must be sustainable and available for everyone - irrespective of the location/access. I have mentioned online only as a ways of collating information, but the last mile delivery still has to be through people...
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    Jul 13 2011: Yes.
    Education is already free.
    We have the Internet and like all tools it can be used for good and for bad.
    The Internet is the greatest research tool in the world.
    It connects to every Library in the world and you can access every book by the click of a button.
    We can share information freely and can discuss online in real time without ever leaving the house.

    One good example of this is the "Physics for future presidents" lecture of Dr. Muller from Berkeley University.
    I disagree with many things he says but I appreciate the format and the fact that it is free for every person to access and to watch over and over again.

    This is the way forward, to bring education to the home of every one so that people if they are unemployed can educate themselves to get them out of their situation.

    No transportation fees and no university fees needed.
    Education 24/7 free and for every person accessible especially for the poor and unemployed.

    Selected education for the rich is racism!!!

    Of course we need first to connect the poor countries like India Africa South America and China to the Great Internet community.
    This can easily be done on the back of our work which is Zero Emission Transportation and Infrastructure:

    The Airstream Train System is a new method of transportation that's a faster, safer, cleaner and cheaper solution for city, country and continental transportation.
    With small variations in design and speed it can be used in a low speed city environment to a high speed continental transportation system.

    The Airstream Train flies around the Track using cutting edge aviation technology. The Track is a hollow elliptical tube that provides a space for Internet, electricity, telephone, TV and even water to be supplied through it.

    It is easy to maintain and upgrade.
    It is a silent Transportation System that is faster than an airplane while producing water as the only exhaust.

    D.W. Major
    Zero Emission Transportation Ltd.
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    Jul 12 2011: back to your question, should education be free?
    there should not be education system at all
    it's more of a system to sharing information
    but will this let countries satisfied?
    sure not, no circulation of money
    though, qualified people will keep learning
    currently it's like the rabbit and the carrot experiment
    students are the rabbit, the process is education, carrot is money.......
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    Jul 12 2011: now for better education:
    traditionally, education is using only three senses, to acquire knowledge
    what if we increased that number of senses manipulated to gain new information
    this will increase the learning by association
    making it more easy to store/retrieve information
    the best way I see is the team structure
    as for not only the student is ready with scientific information but, with social traditions, and team environment
    in this case, no need for experienced employees, students will go through all problems, due to working in teams
    they will cooperate with one another, and so on, same as what happens in real life, work environment
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    Jul 12 2011: I simply means there must be a radical change in education
    this is due to the change in the environment
    the inputs have changed, consequently outputs will change through different mechanisms
    if we take education as a process, inputs have changed, simply the availability of information makes the input changes, before people had to travel to get information, now things are different
    this makes it better to come up with different outputs, goals and achievements in science or whatever
    but the question, do we have to stick to the same old system to improve, my answer is no
    I see the environment has changed became easy to find information and education became more easy and accessible to all, this makes us come up with different better outputs, efficiently
    but what goes on in the whole world is to stick to old traditional methods in learning
    the only good reason I see, is the circulation of money
    as it goes for education is getting expensive year by year, under the title of better facilities
    though, unemployment is high
    we may conclude that it's not about better education
    it's the system
    to me, "coping" is the best mechanism ever
    coping with good supervision is better than expecting the good from graduates
    I think, anyone can do anything
    it's all about management
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    Jul 12 2011: I see education currently is nothing but a circulation of money mechanism
    the environment(s) has/have changed, consequently, education systems should change
    though, this is not what been happening
    nowadays, information is available to all for free, it might need someone to be good at searching at the net
    though, they still keep, potential wastes, in the form of books (printed papers) need to be dumped later, increasing costs, it could have been more easy to look for alternatives, but people prefer what they know
    another point is that, what education is about but a certification, about what?
    how ready students are?! (grading system)
    education systems, does not make anyone ready, they provide information, can be accessed with a good searchers, or trial and error will get anyone there
    as Sir Ken Robinson also said, this era is characterized by the certifications boom, "still you're not qualified, you need more courses", year by year life needs more qualifications, thus more money, more helping the economy, not education nor science
    collages and faculties, take money from students, on what grounds?, providing free information!
    or make people qualified, coping could have got a person there too, for free
    anyhow, bottom line, education must change, the environment has changed, thus education must change consequently
    actually the idea behind education must change, it's never a one way direction flow of information, from lecturers to students, this makes students reach the lecturer's status at maximum
    though, it should be transformed into learning and knowledge acquisition
    targeting building logic, this makes people, students be able to cope better
    this makes us focus more on what the components of logic are

    classes could be in a form of teams, introducing issues to come up with newer approaches, here students with newer inputs, could come up with more acceptable solutions than older generations'
    education is not history, students know about what others came up with only.
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      Jul 12 2011: Sorry Mohamed. i am not able to understand your point of view. i seem to get it but still seems pretty vague...
  • Jul 12 2011: The article titled "A College Education for All, Free and Online" by Kevin Carey in The Chronicle of Higher Education might be of interest:

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      Jul 12 2011: Thanks Julie. I just read it. It is a great start! Yes, this IS the future. I will speak to them also. Good day
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    Jul 12 2011: What do you think abt organisations like Khanacademy. They are making free online videos and reaching out the world
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      Jul 12 2011: You are right Manish. Khan is one example. We need 10s of 1000s of such ones. Thank you
  • Jul 12 2011: The idea is undoubtedly benevolent, but unfortunately it is an extremely complex issue.

    I would like to adress a couple of statements in the original post.

    1. "...population which is either unemployed or possess a volunteering mindset" - could You clarify this sentence a bit?

    2. "Online mechanism" - the wide shroud of the internet hasn't reached the poorest and most endangered areas of the world , hence it is questionable if this approach is actually feasible?


    How about free educational systems, such as ones present in some ex-communistic countries? For example, this model of education is still present in my country - Serbia. It would take a considerable effort to show the pros and the cons of the mentioned model, and yes there are significant drawbacks in the free-for-all system.
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      Jul 12 2011: Thank you for your comments Stevan. My responses.
      1. There is 8-10% of the population who are adults and are unemployed. Most of them are actually 'unemployable' - but if we take a fraction of them and groom them to become facilitators, they could add significant value to the model. Also there are thousands of people who want to volunteer for social causes but either do not know where to offer their time, energy and efforts or are not available in a consistent time frame. But we can bring them together and even utilise their expertise as and when required.
      2. Online Mechanism - I had clarified this point in one of my responses (refer below my response on June 19).

      Yes. Like in Serbia or elsewhere, a similar form of free education does exist in India also - but the quality of the education suffers. The challenge is to offer superior quality education free - it is a fundamental right to everyone. If we think of it that way, then the whole concept brings in numerous possibilities.
      Thank you
  • Jul 11 2011: In regards to university level education, I personally find it incredibly frustrating how expensive education is. Learning on your own and challenging the exams is usually the same cost as taking the course. I can not afford university however if I were to learn on my own, unfortunately where I live a degree is expected and thus I would not have a very good chance competing against those with degrees. I wish there was a respected online university that charged you for the time it took for marking your assignments/exams only, I bet I could afford that.
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      Jul 11 2011: My last course at a Univirsity, I had to pay for the course and then sit in class and learn the material on my own. Where's the lecture? Where's the reinforcing? LIberal schools dont seem to make very good use of logical thinking.

      On challenging the course, if they reccomend you buy a certain book, you can bet you will not be able to challenge the course if you did not learn out of that particular book.

      Math for instance, should be a course taught, reinforced by any book that teaches math. The course Challenge should be on Math, and not on that particular book.
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    Jul 10 2011: I am from Ecuador, Latin America. Here, government has started an innovative educational program called "Escuelas del Milenio (Millenium Schools)". Its purpose was bringing technology and knowldege to poor people, mainly to people living in rural zones. Government invested high amounts of money in computers and training teachers in order for they use those resources to teach students into a brand new educational environment, full of new methodologies and evaluative ways. It costs no money at all for its users. But, I donĀ“t believe this will work at last, because several teachers are gone due to they took better laboral opportunities where they earn much more money than Government could pay to them. Resources like computers and virtual blackboards are not in full use or are being used sometimes. At last, those educational institutions are using the same old and outdated educational methodologies and ways of teaching, because new teachers finally do what they know. Therefore, applying a couple of good ideas is not enough for succeed in lending free (basic) education for all. I think it is necessary to create a brand new, parallel educational system that fits into true educational society needs.
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      Jul 11 2011: Thanks for your comments. From what you have mentioned Ramiro, it seems to be a "forced to fit" experiment. Such are bound to fail at some point or other. The trick and challenge is to include everyone - the teachers current & past, the government and the students. A similar experiment in India is reaping in dividends because the ownership is with the school and teachers and their pay is dependent on the success of this program. While even this is a artificial way, this is closer to what can be done today in a diverse society....