August 13th, 2005
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has posted about a couple of his very interesting “Ten Things That Will Be Free” idea on Larry Lessig’s blog as a warm-up to his keynote address for Wikimania 2005, the first Wikipedia Conference that was over a few days ago. Of these ten things, I think the most exciting idea and one that will be of most far-reaching benefit to global development is the idea that all curriculum – from kindergarten through university – should be free. Wales makes a concrete prediction that “a complete curriculum in English and a number of major languages will exist by 2040, and translation to minor languages will likely follow soon after.”
I think this idea is a great boon to Thailand for many reasons (most of which probably apply to other developing countries too):
- Our education system has languished for years and mired in corruption. Few politicians want to tackle the problem because developing education is a long-term project that won’t “pay off” in concrete gains in 4 or 8 years (i.e. so they could brag about the results come election time). The free curriculum initiative is a good low-cost way schools can try to improve themselves without waiting for the government.
- Unlike most other Things That Should Be Free, the power of free curriculum is not 100% dependent on technology or the Internet: while the Internet is a powerful medium on which the curriculum can be designed in a collaborative way, the curriculum’s actual implementation (e.g. textbook printing) can be done off-line by Ministry of Education and whoever else is interested. This will be a good way for companies to perform charities also, since it is potentially more useful than donating money to ill-equipped rural schools whose immediate problem is not only insufficient funds, but also the lack of teachers and quality textbooks.
- The price of textbooks here, like everywhere else, is a huge burden for students. And there is a huge quality gap between expensive textbooks (that naturally only rich students can afford) and cheap government-subsidized ones.
- Like most other developing countries, we suffer from a lack of quality teachers – a fact that results mainly from very low salaries, especially for teachers who work for government-operated schools (the vast majority). To put it more precisely: teachers in Thailand earn about US$3,700 per year on average, or 53% lower than our average GDP per capita of US$8,000. It is no wonder that over 80% of Thailand’s teachers are in debt.
- While the benefits of the free curriculum initiative are obvious for “universal” subjects like science and mathematics, I think the benefits for “local” subjects like history can be even greater for Thailand. When experts worldwide can collaborate via the Internet on Thai history, for example, the exercise is bound to force us as a country to broaden our historical perspectives and knowledge (especially when we are still not as “open” about our history as most other countries. For example: it is still taboo to teach students about the blunders or sins of past kings, and a concrete approach to teach “people’s history” does not yet exist – currently Thai history is taught as “history of Thai kings” for the most part, even though our political system was changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy over 70 years ago)
I can’t think of a more constructive use of the Internet’s “democratizing power” than to let professors all over the world collaborate on the curriculum that schools everywhere can use. Wales’ own WikiBooks project and MIT’s OpenCourseWare project are two laudable pilot projects that are worth following and helping out.
EDIT on August 20, 2005: Thanks to Larry Nelson for pointing out Sun’s Global Education & Learning Community (GELC), a project that is very much in the spirit of Wales’ idea.
Helping to jumpstart the local version of this wonderful idea would be a much more worthy cause for the Ministry of Education than granting licenses to new international schools left and right, which is what they are doing. International schools not only will further widen the gap between the rich and the poor (since international schools cost almost as much as sending kids abroad and offer virtually no scholarships or financial aid), but probably will also erode the understanding of Thai as a language (since international school students do not have to study Thai anymore, even if they are Thai).
Hmm, perhaps I should write this in Thai as well.
To echo Wales: free the curriculum!