Monday, 2 April 2012

Stream of Consciousness: 21st Century Education

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

I have failed to live up to the expectations I set myself when starting this blog. I aimed to post 50 posts in March and I've not even managed a third of that. I've been reflecting on the reasons why and they're really not very impressive: I have ideas, but I'm wary about writing them down. Too large a part of me feels that it's a waste of time or that they'll be shot down too easily. On my HubPages blog I did something similar to what I'm attempting to do now: just write what comes off the top of my head and post the result whatever form it might take. I'm hoping I'll be more successful here. I'll try to commit to doing this at least once a week and see how it goes.

I have an insatiable appetite for learning about anything that comes to mind at any time. This could be a good thing to share in this blog on these "streams of consciousness" posts. I'll start by sharing some brilliant resources that help me achieve this.

The first and most well known is Wikipedia. The site is sometimes viewed with ridicule: that because "anyone can edit it", the information in it is not to be trusted. Of course this view totally ignores the peer review process which the site implements, that it warns you of problematic information either because it is unsourced, biased, uses too many weasel words etc. Anyone with half a brain who uses the site needs to take those pages with a grain of salt and check the information, but Wikipedia is perhaps the greatest thing on the internet. Think about it. Before the internet, if you wanted to know some random fact about something, you would have to rely on the fact that someone around you knew, that it was mentioned in a paper or the news, or that you had a book about it. Failing that, you would need to go to a library or sign up to take a university course. Wikipedia breaks down all those barriers and simplifies the process. As an example, a few weeks ago, out of random curiosity, I wanted to know, in as much detail as possible, how insulin worked. How, before Wikipedia, could the average Joe find out such a thing? Forgetting any advancement in understanding of insulin that might have occurred since then, I would have to find a biology textbook in a library and even that probably wouldn't be enough. I wouldn't know what any of the jargon meant. "What's a beta cell", I'd wonder. I would probably have to take a biology course which would either rely on the fact that I'd taken enough biology in school (I don't personally have even a high school qualification in it) or it would cost me thousands (even with the government covering my tuition fees in full). The process could take years. Wikipedia got that down to a few hours. I just typed "insulin" into its search engine and the resulting page explained a lot about how insulin worked, all the jargon linked to a page which explained what it meant, and the only possible cost involved is the electricity required to run my computer (which I'd pay for in bill form anyway if I was using it for some other purpose). The value of the site to autodidacts or to even someone with a curiosity is incalculable, and to diminish that by disregarding it solely on the basis of the fact that "anyone can edit it" without mentioning the peer review process is sad.

As proof of the power of Wikipedia, let me explain what I now know about insulin. What the average person is likely to know is that when it goes wrong, you end up with diabetes. So let me flesh that out a bit.

Insulin is a hormone. Simply put, this is a protein which plays the role of a messenger. The message that insulin delivers to the body is "take in glucose". It does this by basically acting as a "key" to a cell's "door". The insulin binds to a receptor (the keyhole) opening the glucose transporter (the door) and the glucose can then go through into the cell to perform its duties. So as to not digress, I won't get into what glucose does, but simply put, it's the body's main energy source.

Insulin is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas. Remember my earlier question, "what's a beta cell"? It's simply one of the parts of the endocrine portion of the pancreas (the part that releases hormones into the bloodstream). This whole portion of the pancreas has a fancy name, the "islets of Langerhans", and again, I won't go too deeply into that. Anyway, the fundamental source of insulin is, as with every other part of the body, your DNA, specifically the INS gene. For simplicity, I'll just describe the basics of how this results in insulin. The gene is read using an enzyme called RNA polymerase which produces an RNA copy of the original DNA. Think of it as translating a language. This RNA copy is then read by another molecule called a ribosome. As the ribosome reads the RNA, it takes in amino acids (the building blocks of the protein) and assigns one of 20 amino acids to each 3-letter portion (codon) of the sequence. The amino acids are joined together by the ribosome eventually resulting in part of the insulin protein called proinsulin. This proinsulin is then treated by other parts of the cell (again I won't go into detail here) to finally produce a functioning insulin molecule.

Finally, diabetes. There are 2 types: Type I and Type II. Type I is when the body's immune system attacks the beta cells which produce insulin, and so the body simply doesn't produce enough. Type II is when the body becomes resistant to insulin. This tends to be related to obesity: as of right now, I don't have a very complete understanding of the mechanism by which insulin resistance works but it looks as if it has something to do with enzymes in cells called "kinase" which are sensitive to the presence of lipids (basically fats) and so they are less effective at dealing with glucose. You don't want to use that last part for educational purposes, trust me on that.

Without the internet, I'd never be able to know something like that. I wouldn't have the means to access such information. However, as brilliant as Wikipedia is, this simply provides information, and sometimes not enough. To fill the gap, I'd like to talk about MIT OpenCourseware. This is a truly great resource. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has uploaded content from many of their courses onto their website for the average person to view without needing to enlist in any of their courses. The content that has been uploaded from each course varies: some just have exam papers with no solutions, others have full lecture notes, homework assignments, exams and their solutions, and some even have full video lectures (quite a few universities have uploaded their lectures onto YouTube). Even with the low content courses, if used in conjunction with Wikipedia to explain the jargon, you can learn anything, all while knowing that this is what is being taught in universities which you'd otherwise have to pay for.

At this point, I'd like to propose an idea. As great as these resources are, ultimately, they don't have much economic value. Employers like degrees and qualifications, proof that you really know about the subject. You could spend years looking at these courses and turning yourself into a polymath, but this on its own is unlikely to impress employers. What I'd like to suggest is to reform the examination process. Instead of having a situation where universities just carry out their own exams,  first, as many as possible follow MIT's lead in providing their courses online for free. They then create an examination service whereby anyone can book an exam for a reasonable fee any time of the year and take it under the controlled conditions necessary,  and, at the end, they get a qualification for that course. This would be of great benefit to us because we have complete control over what to learn and when, also meaning we are not subject to the situation at universities where there are course clashes and we have to choose between 2 or more we like (I have an annoying amount of experience of this), and it would definitely benefit employers, because they have a better understanding of each person's area of expertise. I believe it would also improve the general education level of the population because barriers to higher education will be torn down and our natural competitiveness will force us to attain greater levels of education in the specific subject area we want a job in than our competitors. It would require collaborating with experts on each field, especially in the initial stages, and there may be some government obstacles to overcome, but I'm convinced I have the basics of a good idea here.

I'll leave it there for now. I really liked writing this post, so I think I'm definitely going to do this format more often.


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