Real World Classroom

At Pittsburgh’s Saxifrage School, educators say everything they need to operate their college campus already exists in the community. Is this the future of higher education?

College. What a subjective word. For many, college has existed as a privilege; some may see it as a rite of passage, or even a drain of their bank account. Others imagine it as an inevitable next step that’s been instilled in them since birth. For many, however, college is as an untouchable institution that has existed as such for hundreds of years—until recently.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), offered for free through Ivy League universities, have attracted several million students since they were first offered in 2011. Organizations like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research began cropping up, offering noncredit graduate-level liberal arts arts classes for a fraction of a traditional college’s price. Prospective students are beginning to explore their options and consider their higher education paths as more of an economical decision than ever before. As author of DIY U Anya Kamenetz said to Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Belkin, “It’s a little bit like the 1960s and ‘70s on college campuses right now… There’s a lot of unrest and students are looking for alternatives.”

An alternative is just the thing Tim Cook, founding director of Pittsburgh’s Saxifrage School, is looking to provide.

Cook developed his school, which uses spaces within the community as its classrooms, to unite the ideological development gained from a humanities education with the more marketable, production-oriented education oft afforded through studying the sciences—all for a fraction of the cost. Cook explained this concept in a recent op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Those of us who work in production should be trained to think critically and ask big questions about our work. Likewise, the academics among us must not be confined to the ivory tower; our critiques and artistic perspectives should be put into practice and grounded in the world of made things. We must learn to make what is valuable and to question the value of what is made.

And the idea, while it may seem radical, has been quite well thought out. Cook and his colleagues published a comprehensive list of reasons why they opened the new antiestablishment college, including the importance of a community-oriented education that is profitable for both educators and students. “What’s the point of spending a fortune to reinvent the wheel?” Cook said to Belkin. “Everything you need to operate a campus is already right there in the community.”

One of Cook’s goals is for Saxifrage students to ask, “What is the common good and how can I work to serve it?” He and his school are just another facet of the movement to provide an ecosystem of learning opportunity for today’s learners, along with MOOCs and Hive networks.

Mozilla’s badge system has been another momentous force to the cause, providing a way for students and self-directed learners to receive a kind of “real world credit” for skills that are not necessarily taught in schools. People of all ages are now able to display these badges, which are provided through local and national organizations alike, in their very own portfolio, which they can then use when applying for schools or future jobs. Mind/Shift writer Ian Quillen explained Mozilla’s impetus behind the new open-platform assessment tools:

The idea behind Mozilla’s project is to create a common currency of how badges are structured and discussed. While Mozilla can’t — nor does it want to — control the quality of the elements required for badges listed within its project, it does require every badge to provide authentication for the organization issuing the badge and for the user receiving it, as well as a link to the criteria needed to earn it and the evidence of the learner meeting that criteria.

These new and exciting alternatives of assessing and developing skills will undoubtedly do wonders for what some have called a “broken” system, there is of course room for skepticism. Hack Education writer Audrey Watters explained that many who insist that higher education is a “bad investment” are forgetting about many of the other factors that are at play when it comes to networking or trying to “make it” on your own without a four-year degree to lean on.

“The ‘don’t go to school’ narrative is often quick to brush aside the ways in which gender, race, class, and ability afford privilege and complicate alternatives,” said Watters. “No doubt, most of us do not live the lives of the ‘don’t go to school’ poster-boys (and yes, they are boys) — Gates, Zuckerberg, and the like.”

Watters further explained that by relying on the Internet to become a “self-taught” or “self-made” success, like the men she just mentioned, we are ignoring the complex networks of privilege that many have access to, regardless of their higher education decisions. Watters also explains that, despite how easy it may be for some to learn new skills on the internet, many people are not “autodidacts,” and that a four-year education might be the smartest choice for them.

Regardless of the arguments for and against formal colleges and universities, the fact that there are other options available for today’s students is exciting and will undeniably help create a more diverse landscape for higher education, with schools like Cook’s and others creating new opportunities for learners everywhere.

Published May 12, 2013