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What Does a Free Range Student Look Like? MOOCs, Learning to Be Social, and the Brave New World of Education

28/02/2014 10:55 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 10:59 BST

It was the early 1980s, and I was in my late teens. There were many certainties at that time - Nelson Mandela would never be free, it was only a matter of time before the two superpowers would push the nuclear button on Armageddon, and for kids of my age there were two choices. Either you went to university, or you didn't.

The world of post-school education was then undergoing major changes, under the seemingly precise scalpel of Margaret Thatcher's education secretary Keith Joseph.

It was a revolution that was destined to become perpetual. British universities are still lurching from each major shake-up to the next.

As a potential consumer of the system (a phrase that was not around at the time), I felt that I had no real choice. I had to go, my life choices would be much greater. And for heaven's sake it was free, and I would receive funds (a maintenance grant) to live on for the three years. It was a no brainer.

Needless to say, things are now very different.

Thankfully, I live in Scotland, so the choices for my teenage children are somewhat better than those available in England or Wales, so long as they choose to remain here. But the type of choices, and the options they have for an education to set them on the right life-course, have changed almost beyond recognition.

I do wonder what it will be like when they have children, and those children themselves are at the same age. What will be the 'norm' for being a student in the mid twenty-first century? It will certainly be different from today, and far far away from the world that I knew 'back in the day'.

Free range humans

I have become a firm believer in the concept of the free range human.

This is not a new concept, but it has become a buzz word for a new type of living, that is structured very much around the new horizons that the internet provides. The concept, coined by the entrepreneur-writer Marianne Cantwell (Be a Free Range Human, 2013), embodies a lifestyle that contrasts with the 'battery cage' of the regular, nine to five work-life.

A free range human usually works from home, or any other place that they want to be, and they spend up to 100% of their work time doing the 15% that non-free rangers enjoy in their work (and so avoid the other 85% that is non-productive, and which they do not enjoy).

Put simply it is about not working for a living. If you do things you enjoy, and if what you do makes you feel free (rather than caged up), then you are not working.

Of course, it sounds too good to be true. And it is not the life for everyone. But it works for some, and it is their work. The challenge is to make a living from being free range.

I am currently trying to discover how this can work for me, how I could become a 'free range professor' - as much by necessity as by choice.

The free range student

I raise this idea here, because I am also fascinated by the question of what the 'free range student' could look like.

And will the free range approach be the exception or the norm for students over the next decades?

If we want to get intelligible answers to these questions, then there are two particular aspects of the contemporary higher-education sphere that we cannot afford to ignore. These are MOOCs and social media.

These two things will, most likely, be crucially important to the development in the coming years of a world of free range students (beyond the bottom line of university and personal finances).

The rise and rise of MOOCs

If you have not yet heard this phrase, a MOOC is a 'massive open online course'. It has become a movement in itself within higher education.

A number of major HE players have already jumped into this world. Harvard Business School is making moves that may result in its flagship MBA being taught in full through this medium, and the Coursera consortium has successfully brought together a very impressive stable of top league universities under its umbrella.

Whether we like the idea of them or not, and whether we agree with the pedagogy of MOOCs, it is quite likely that Coursera (and other players such as Udacity and edX) are going to significantly (and perhaps fundamentally) redefine post-school education (universities, academy, and all that) in the long term.

We are still in the early days of this movement, and few know where it is going to go. My feeling is that it will be shaped by the best minds who are involved. That is not necessarily the best academics, but (also) the most astute entrepreneurs. It will be those who see the many possibilities that are on offer from this redefinition of the knowledge economy.

In taking a MOOC, a student can sign up from anywhere and study with a professor based anywhere in the world, on any subject of their choice, so long as they have the technology to handle the video and podcasts, reading materials, and assessments. Alright, so they might be in a class of over 50,000 - but if it is done well, then it is still a real education. It can, and regularly does, open students up to the world of learning, quite literally.

There are some who predict that the days (my days) of 'going to college', to take a three or four year degree, are numbered. Student fees, the ongoing debts, the time out from earning a living, and all number of cheaper and easier alternatives could kill off the luxury of sitting at the feet of the great masters and mistresses of knowledge for a series of semesters.

Why will a young adult wish to spend thousands of pounds to study and learn what she or he can find out through the instant gratification of a quick download onto their iPad? It is possible that in ten years a student's education will be the result of a series of MOOCs, taken either full time at home or part/spare time alongside a serious foray into work or apprenticeship.

Perhaps this will be a time of free range students?

Social lives for free range students

Of course, college has never just been about the knowledge that comes out of (and from within) the classroom. It is very much a social thing.

But what does that mean to a new generation where the concept of 'social' is rooted in Facebook and the short, sharp bites of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other sites?

Social media are the new hubs of the social side of learning. Not the quadrangles of colleges, or the student union bar.

This social world is not 'purely' virtual, it is about real people interacting with each other through a new medium.

To assume that social media are not 'real' forms of interaction is to be like Lady Grantham, the dowager Duchess of Downton Abbey, asserting that a new-fangled phone conversation is not a real form of communication. Or to put this another way - if you are cyber bullied by a class mate, it is as real and as hurtful even if it does come to you on your smartphone through Facebook rather than face-to-face in the school corridor.

My generation needed to learn in the 1990s how to live with the internet that suddenly found itself on our desks, within (and between) our computers.

The new generation of students now take for granted the internet in our pockets, on our smartphones. It is just there, and it is one of the ways in which they have highly meaningful interactions with the world.

And this does give them freedoms, and it can be used for them to become free range students, if they so choose. Not merely to put the lecture in their hands, on their phone. The whole class may be a worldwide group of 'friends' on Facebook or 'followers' on Twitter.

Rumours of my demise...

There are many who will say that MOOCs are only a passing trend, that even though they look 'shiny' and new, they have been around in some ways for a long time, and so on.

This is all true. And it is also true that some of the leaders of the MOOC movement, such as Sebastian Thrun of Udacity have now acknowledged some of the serious limitations of MOOCs (such as extremely high non-completion rates). Most MOOC students tend to be middle class, from developed (rather than developing) economies, and most usually already have had a university eduction. And so the original path envisaged by Thrun and others will most likely be subject to changes. Indeed, there is no single model of the MOOC - it has the capacity to be many different types of learning, to serve quite different needs and contexts.

I think, though, the point to be made is that anyone who is involved with MOOCs (whether they are students, teachers, or managers) will always find themselves on a very sharp learning curve. And on that curve they have to learn how to cope with the changes they are part of.

And that is what education is about. At least, it was in my day.