Monday, February 20, 2012

The Saylor Foundation and Free Education

By Sean Scarpiello

Recently, I found out about a website called which has a mission to provide a free education. Michael J. Saylor, the CEO of a business intelligence firm called MicroStrategy, founded the nonprofit organization in order to bring education to students at no cost at all. The concept of the Saylor Foundation sounds great, but does the website actually prove to be a quality source of education?

When I first logged into the site, I discovered that there were classes in all types of subjects from chemistry and mathematics, to mechanical engineering and business administration. Out of curiosity, I picked the subject of biology to see what it had to offer. I found that the site had a lot of different courses to offer such as cancer biology, human anatomy, botany, and more. However, as I scanned the list of courses, I noticed that not all of them were complete. Some classes were 95% complete, and others even less. This made me question the credibility of the courses. Later on, I read about how the Saylor Foundation contracts real college professors from around the globe to create these courses. It is great that college professors are making the courses, but I found it odd that the courses were incomplete.

As I dove deeper into individual courses, I found that the courses are split up into units and from there into readings on different topics. The readings are essentially links that take the user to different websites which contain articles, videos, and demonstrations on the specific topic. Of the several links I visited, I found that some of them were very reliable and accredited sources. Also, some links led me to YouTube which was a bit of a shock. These videos are being hand chosen by college professors, but I would approach anything taught by a YouTube video with caution. Overall, I found that the information being taught all looked to be correct, but it felt like something was missing. Some vital aspects of some courses were not emphasized or completely overlooked. For example, in an intro biology course, the site talked about the linkages holding together sugars, but it completely ignored the different types of sugars as well as the combinations that sugars can form when linked. In laymen’s terms, there was a quite a bit of key info missing from an entry level course. Also, due to the linked readings, the course felt chopped up in a way. As there was no single source of information, I could see students new to the material struggling to grasp it.

Another aspect of the website I read about was that the institution was not accredited; therefore, it could not give out degrees. However, upon completion of the course and a passing grade on the tests and quizzes, the site would allow the student to print out a certificate of completion. I found this a bit odd because although the student passed a college level course designed by professors, employers will not really accept a printed out certificate.

Overall, I do not think the Saylor Foundation’s courses can be considered completely up to par with a college level curriculum. However, I do not feel that the site is completely useless. The resources and quizzes offered by the site can be a great way to review for tests in classes being taken at a college. Also, the courses could act as a way for students to get their feet wet with some of a course’s material before they take the class. Perhaps students entering an intro chemistry class in college can review the course using this site during the summer. This would definitely help out in the fall when students may struggle to grasp the concepts in class. In the future, if the Saylor Foundation can find a way to be accredited while boosting some of their class material, I think the site will definitely be a success.


Friday, February 10, 2012

The Future of Libraries

By Sean Scarpiello

This upcoming summer, my college is planning a new renovation of our library on campus. Since a good deal of money is being spent to upgrade the library, the administration of the college has been questioning the students about the sorts of changes we would like to see. Recently, between some of my friends, there has been a debate on what the library should keep and what should go. The overall question we are trying to answer is, “What are future libraries going to look like?”

Most of our library debate is focused on the books in the library. There are floors of shelves filled with old books. Most of these book look as if they haven’t been open for years. After some thought, I realized that I had never even checked out a book from the library. The only time I used a source directly from the college library was to read cutting edge biology articles from science journals. After making this discovery, I talked to some of my peers to see if they have signed books out of the library. For the most part, they had not checked out any books either. However, my friends who had checked out books described that they ultimately ended up online at GoogleBooks. Here, they were able to simply find the books the library had in print form, and do an automated search through the book. I have also used this resource for classes because it enables students to spend less time thumbing through hundreds of pages looking for a few informative pages.

For some courses like biology, psychology, and other sciences, there are few if any books to be used as sources in paper. This is due to the fact that new scientific breakthroughs are occurring every day. The new innovations make the old material obsolete, so there is no real purpose to having books on these topics. For other topics, such as political science, economics, and history, there are a multitude of books which are also slowly expiring. Scientific breakthroughs in DNA and other fields of science allow us to better understand our past in new ways. Perhaps it would be better to have a library of scientific journals and books on certain, slower progressing fields.

Some of my peers think there should be no books in the library at all. We could move to a library full of computers hooked up to online libraries and databases which are easy to access and quite possibly cheaper. The lack of physical books would free up a lot of space for these computers and study lounges. Also, students would be able to write papers more efficiently as they would not need to look through pages of books; looking for the needle in the haystack of information. Free tools such as GoogleBooks already have a program which allows limited access to thousands of books. College students everywhere are using these resources so they can spend less time in the library. It would only make sense to make this transition, yet some are still skeptical about going completely electronic. What do you think?