Creeping back into the education world: did you know you can get a Bachelors in Independent Studies? This is the kind of thing I wish Olin had gone for - albeit with a "you must study engineering" requirement - back in the days of the "3 vs 1" degree debate (we eventually settled on 3 engineering degrees: Mechanical, Electrical and Computer, and General with several concentrations you could choose from, including stuff like Bioengineering, Materials Science, and make-your-own).There's also this edwired musing which includes thoughts on avoiding classes entirely, and gaining entrance into professions by virtues of things like a bar exam. (Which reminds me that I've got a long overdue post series to restart.)

The post is a little vague on exactly what "open source higher education" means. From my reading, it seems like a combination of "education materials should be open access!" which... is great, but isn't higher-ed specific and access to materials alone does not an education make, and "You should be able to get your degree by teaching yourself and then passing exams, not necessarily showing up in set classes," which is the case in a large number of huge lecture courses already. I think it's a good beginning to a conversation, but needs some more thought. Open source higher ed must be more than just a bunch of independent studies.

From the edwired post:

What is the purpose of the college degree? It seems to me that there are several: to provide some assurance that the degree holder has mastered some body of knowledge (at least as much as we would expect from four years of college); to provide access to a more or less privileged elite called the alumni; and to provide a convenient stopping point on the way to even greater mastery of some body of knowledge.

I agree with Derek's comment to the edwired post on feedback and community lacking in the proposed "study on your own, and then get tested" model. My take on it goes a little further: while these might be some of the purposes behind the piece of paper we call a college degree, it's not the same as the purposes behind college.

College is (among other things) a learning environment; a degree is "proof" that you've completed a set series of requirements within that environment. Whether those requirements correspond to actual capability is another question, and credentialism a debate for another day, but I'd hazard right now that another functionality of a college degree is - usually - to certify that you've been resident in a certain learning environment for an extended period of time.

This can be anything from "Wow, you went to a prestigious school, you must be smart!" cachet (however true that is) to "Hey, I was in that program - do you know Prof. X?" A degree, like it or not, carries some assumptions about the kind of people you might have spent your time around, the kind of classes you might have taken, the kind of teaching styles and learning mechanisms you might have been exposed to, and the rigidity of the qualifications that you had to pass in order to get the paper. How much of this can people see from a diploma? Not much, unless they happen to know a lot about that individual school. And even then it's no guarantee that individual had the "usual" experience.

Not sure where I was going with that train of thought.

There is a precedent for the model the post describes, though - one that's completely customized, but regarded by both academic and non-academic communities at large to be rigorous, thorough, and a very good indication of one's knowledge of a field. It's called a qualifying exam. (I'm not sure about "practicality," and it's definitely a labor-intensive option for all involved, but I'd love to hear what people who are in / have been through grad school think about that particular model of schooling.)

At some point I should compile a list of alternative paradigms that could be utilized in undergrad engineering education. That would be an interesting read.