From Takshashila to MOOC
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced a new non-profit partnership, edX, to offer free online courses. MOOC, Massive Open Online Courses are already available from Stanford, Princeton, Michigen-Ann Arbour and Penn under the project Coursera (www.coursera.org), "changing the face of education globally", to "learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students." Harvard Metadata Project provides open access in order to support learning and research, to disseminate knowledge and to foster innovation.
We have come a long way across 3200 years, from Takshashila (Taxila) which has been dated back to the 10th century B.C. to Corusera in the 21st century. We had the Platonic Academy and Aristotles Peripatetic school in Greece, Taixue in China from the pre-Christian period, and later Nalanda in India, Academy of Gundishpur in Persia and Daigakuryo in Japan.
Most of the ancient universities were founded for the teachings of great religious leaders or philosophers. But none of these great leaders had gained their own knowledge at any educational institutions or universities. Even in more recent years, some people achieved greatness and served mankind in spite of what they had learned at their universities.
Takshasila, Nalanda, Vallabhi and Vickramashila were well known for their excellence in education and had attracted students even from China. Each teacher was an institution by himself and enjoyed complete autonomy. UNESCO mentions the claim that the Mahabharata was first recited at Taxila. Valabhi was beside a sea port, attracting many overseas students and did not limit their courses to Theravada Buddhism, but offered studies in the Veda and courses for businessmen and the ruling classes. They offered Niti (Political Science), Varta (Business and agriculture), also law, economics and accountancy.
At Vikramashila at one time there had been one hundred and eight buildings, all laid out in the shape of a lotus to accommodate several thousand students and teachers. There were six 'Patashala' each with a learned scholar as the head of the acharyas.
We are able to put together what the university life had been in ancient India mainly through the descriptions by the visiting Chinese monks.
In ancient times often education was on a one to one basis, specially at institutions like Nalanda, while at Vikramashila lectures were held for large groups of students. Today we are back with both systems, with on-line learning. We can have our one-to-one education, through our own computer, even though the teacher would be addressing all his students spread around the globe.
A few decades back the ambition of most parents was to have their children obtain a university degree. Then the Rat Race among mankind led them to seek further education and higher qualifications. Twenty years ago, an Indian friend told me about his son doing an MBA and added, "I have only a degree". This craze has spread to our country too, as we can see on weekends where many young and not so young people attend post graduate classes.
There was a recent news item about a 91 year old Australian who obtained a degree in law followed by a master's at 97. He has already got four degrees, starting with his first degree in dentistry 72 years ago. He claims he did it because "I have so much time on my hands these days and I like to keep mentally active"
He has got into the Guinness records, and it is a harmless way to be mentally active. There are many who have an "insatiable itch" to keep on studying, keep on adding degrees after their names, for whatever reason. It could be that some of them want to prove to themselves that they are intelligent, that they are capable of facing educational and academic challenges, to show that they are way above the 'hoi polloi'. Or it could be that they hope to 'advance their carriers', and to gain social and economic stature.
Throughout our entire lifetime, we keep learning. Our knowledge and experience we gather from the university of life itself. We learn so we could improve our own life and be of benefit to the rest of the world, and we share our knowledge with others around us and teach the younger generation.
Jayanta Bhatta (9th cent) Kashmiri poet and philosopher had written, "How can we discover any new fact or truth? One should consider novelty only in rephrasing the oldest truths of the ancients in modern terminology". (Nyaya-manjari, Introduction vs 8. K Matilal, Nyayavaisesika). What we learn, what we know, what we discover are nothing new. We only learn what exists in our universe. This knowledge belongs to all mankind, and all other intelligent creatures. We cannot have a monopoly on knowledge, it is our duty to share it with everyone, and pass it down to the next generation.
Education was free in ancient times, but not free for everyone. There were many social, economic and religious barriers. Admission was also not easy. Major universities conducted an 'Entrance examination', to test the knowledge of the applicant and also to assess his intelligence and his commitment. It was because of limitations of facilities and funds. Today sky is the limit.
The day is coming when there will be free education for all, and we can carry our university in our pocket, along with libraries and museums, all on a tablet pc or even on our phone.