The Economics of Education and the Cosmopolitan Localism of P2P Models

At the time of writing, the National Student Loan’s Debt Clock indicates that America is $1.35 trillion dollars deep in student loan debt (and counting). Education is an amazing and a necessary institution for a nation. It is described as a “positive externality,” the benefits of which are enjoyed by a third-party as a result of an economic transaction. The more productive an individual gets, the more he or she benefits the society through meaningful contributions (i.e. cure for cancer, creativity, etc). In the end, it plays a pivotal role in increasing the country’s standards of living. However, there are many flaws in the current higher education system, and the benefits of education as a holistic society is coming at a price — when it doesn’t have to. In his paper, “Extracts: Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky argues that the world’s primed for such a change: “The economy is primed for circular economy (food, clothing, packaging, etc).”

According to Shirky, current trends in economy is challenging the rigid, federally-ordained systems. There is competition to the “traditional institutional forms of getting things done,” and although those institutions will continue to exist, their effect “on modern life will weaken as novel alternatives for group action arise.” Although the “absolute advantages” of the traditional higher education system haven’t disappeared, a lot of the “relative advantage” of it has. This is evident in various different fields of study: mathematics, software programming, design, liberal arts education, just to name a few. With the plethora of openly available resources that are also shared at a peer to peer level, it has become extremely easy to self-educate some of the foundational skills in the above-mentioned topics.

This is extremely unsustainable for our economy, as even though it is proven that people with a college degree earn more than dropouts or those with high school diplomas do and it would be a wise investment in the long-term picture for anyone, the fact of the matter is that the cost of a college degree is simply too expensive for the majority of Americans. This aggravates the staggering dropout statistics (more than half of freshmen drop out of college), leading to more debt but with less means of paying it back, for lack of a diploma. And because it’s so expensive, college education is primarily for those with privileged socioeconomic standing. Since those from the privileged backgrounds then make more money than those with high school diplomas or dropouts, it perpetuates poverty among the lower-middle class families.

It is also unsustainable because according to Don Tapscott, the American higher education system (i.e. lecture-based, top-down “teaching” model) is a dated model that doesn’t take into account how people really learn: by actively engaging and experimenting on ideas and actions, hands-on.

The result of this is that in more than half of the instances, the current higher education model fails us in regards to enabling the students to become economically self-sufficient, as well as to properly educate them.

The open-source and peer-to-peer education model addresses both of these issues. An example of this model might be as simple and universal a model as wikipedia, or as wide-spread and complex as the P2PU. By harnessing each other’s knowledge and by leveraging the powerful medium of technology and the internet, both the individual and the society will benefit from debt-free and a more collaborative higher education.

In their paper, “Wikinomics: The Art and Science of Peer Production,” Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams claim that because commons isn’t proprietary, and its production is decentralized, working together for a common goal is easy and it benefits the larger ecosystem because it is achieved collectively. Because of these benefits, transparency and openness (in collaborating) is becoming an asset to the economy at large. Thanks to these emerging horizontal organizational structures, technology is that much more empowering on the individual users.

There are other aspects that indirectly effect the economy in a negative way. In a lecture he gave on this very subject, Tapscott states that because universities’ teaching models, “people won’t learn much.” It would be much more useful and scalable, as well as more profitable for the larger economy, if we moved away from this industrial, lecture-based model towards hands-on, applying and learning-based model — this is why open-sourced, peer-to-peer educational model is in need.

“If sustainability and resilience must be characterizing features of every potential future society, their cultural dimension must be considered too.”
- Ezio Manzini

Cosmopolitan localist communities will be more economically effective this way, as the peer-to-peer educational models can eliminate the need for the conventional teaching system and the consequential debts, especially for subjects and professions that place more value on hands-on experiences and less value on formal, theory-based knowledge.

It will also be more socially collaborative, as the “teaching” comes from multiple different sources, making the “learning” that much more rich and contextually respectful of multicultural needs, making the P2P model more resilient and adaptable. As Shirky also claims, “production should come from diverse groups of people, for sustainable futures that include everyone.” From the nooks and crannies of rural American regions, large, metropolitan cities in Asia, to remote African regions that may at first seem irreconcilably different. This will, in the long run, enable each and every individual to begin designing their own futures.