There should be no economic barriers to higher education in a finite world where outcomes for many species, including our own, hinge on the wisdom and foresight of human populations. Regardless of whether a formal university education on a well-appointed campus remains a privilege for which students must pay, everyone, everywhere, should have access to that rich inheritance of knowledge, skill, and thought which can light a way forward to that future we yet hope to deserve. Open source instructional materials are already making such access possible. Open source courses should not be limited to recorded lectures by master teachers but should be fleshed out as teaching paired with interactive lesson components that parse, reinforce, and verify understandings.
Solutions to human problems that now loom large will be erected on the foundation of shared understandings woven through the push pull of dialogue rather than in isolation; thus people need to learn to think and to learn together, not so that they might think as one, but so that they might optimize their collective intelligence through reason and understanding. (Argument, reason, and constructive dialogical skills will have to be made an intentional and carefully teased out dimension of the curriculum, because these skills are not in evidence in much of what passes for public discourse today, though they will be essential tools for any constructively configured future.) Ideally, study groups will organize around each course, either by means of the internet alone or additionally at a physical location. A number of online learning tools, such as Live Mocha, P2P University, and Grockit, have already integrated collaborative learning tools which might serve as instructive prototypes.
Learning is a service rendered that merits a service repaid. People who reach mastery of course material should be enlisted to serve as course mentors, helping to guide the learning of students and study groups who follow them. Some might become master teachers themselves. Some form of advanced certification might follow from mastery plus service to the learning community.
The approach to open learning should emphasize connectedness of disciplines rather than dwelling upon each as if it were its own ivory tower. The approach should deal with relationships, impacts and interactions of complex systems within a finite and threatened world and pose principles for living wisely and justly within resource limits.
As fossil fuel supplies decline and economies slow, local learning communities might form around a “Village Construction Curriculum.” The Village Construction Curriculum would foster and support, from philosophy to practice, the creation of resilient, sustainable villages, even among the ruins of the world that oil built. The core courses in this curriculum would guide a learning community as its members learn to transcend the language of divisive national political agendas to make choices about local strategy, development, and governance. More specialized courses would equip members of the learning community to contribute according to interests and strengths, such that the village can develop a local economy that supplies many of its needs. While open source online courses can aid in the development of practical expertise, an apprenticeship model can be developed to add considerable value. Such a curriculum and apprenticeship model might evolve from the collaborative efforts of the Transition Movement and other relevant initiatives.
For existing colleges and universities, an alternative higher education model emerges as an option, one significantly different from the one we replicate widely now. The college experience at some institutions could become an exercise in creating a self-sustaining, self-supporting community blending necessary work, apprenticeships, community and studies. It could be tailored to answer needs of young adults - meaningful work, means to survive, skilling for the future, living in community, pursuing higher learning, and mapping constructive approaches to a future very different from the world they have known (not only conceptually but in practice). It seems imperative that we create institutions and strategies that nurture societal transformation and address current needs all at once. This college model would do both and would be a viable option when higher education implodes given economic collapse or a long descent and when students can no longer see the sense in spending four years racking up educational debt that might be difficult or impossible to repay.