iTunesU points to a future where colleges are free

Your iPod can open up the universe.

If you frequent the popular Apple iTunes music store you may have missed iTunesU, a little link to free lectures from Stanford, MIT, Yale and other leading universities. Glance elsewhere online and you’ll find the similar MIT Open Courseware site, Peer 2 Peer University, and loads of lectures on YouTube. These are not online degree programs but rather information troves posted for free by the universities, all up for anyone to dive in and explore.

Consultant Mark Pesce writes that this online course load is approaching an inflection point in which knowledge about knowledge becomes universal. Soon you will be able to pick from the best lectures on a given subject, from hundreds of lectures rated by studious peers online; you’ll access reading lists, class notes, and tests from any school in the world (who wants to compete on the global stage); and the virtuous cycle of universities competing to be the best will end the era of the best education being only for the wealthy.

There will always be value in brick-and-mortar: College parties and classroom physical debates open eyes, context, and job connections in a way that online viewing does not. Or perhaps even that will change.

In the future you will never finish a degree

What if you could experience any university virtually, meeting peers with 3-D avatars, and leap to only the best experiences? Education would flow outside the ivory walls of top institutions and tight four- or two-year intensive cycles to become an ongoing life learning model for those who wish to continually develop their minds. Perhaps in 20 years the nature of degrees will change from end points (where an MBA or doctorate is some ideal finish line) to check points. You reach level 2.0, then 3.0, and continually evolve. And at higher levels, you contribute back into the knowledge network to pull others forward.

The entire business model of universities would shift as well. Unfortunately colleges, like businesses, profit from the friction between supply and demand — and as knowledge flows freely the participants will want it for free.

No tuition. But advertising? You bet.

So instead of pulling $50,000 in annual tuition from each student in a small elite pool (and spending much of those funds on robotic library book pick-and-pack retrieval systems or college gyms approaching 5-star hotel spas, required to attract future elite students), universities will give education away for free to millions — in exchange for third-party sponsorship offsets, or smaller surcharges for degrees, or for an investment stake in the ideas, patents or even lifetime incomes of the brilliant minds who turn the knowledge gained into economic power. Purveyors of education will still make money, but they will do so at scale.

Is it too much to hope that higher education will become a pleasant commodity, a standard of living for billions instead of a Lexus badge owned by a few in rich nations? Maybe. Perhaps the value of degrees is the mystical cachet that comes from knowing only a few can attain the title. But then, basic literacy was once only for princes and priests, too.

One thought on “iTunesU points to a future where colleges are free

  1. A few random thoughts:

    1. Currently, the idea of taking a stake in someone’s future is mediated by student loans. Giving someone equity in my future earnings? Sounds like a lifetime tax.

    2. Advertising is already a model used to fund education. Look at free tutorial sites on the web. Also, consider corporate sponsorships of building programs and endowments at universities. All of that, at some level, is awareness advertising.

    3. It’s quite clear that there are no educational end points, and schools have adapted to that through various continuing ed initiatives.

    4. From my perspective as an educator what the web changes is my need to be a source of all knowledge to the classroom. Instead, students and I become aggregators and synthesizers for the basic material and creators for more advanced elements.

    5. Ultimately, I think schools continue to sell a few things:
    a. Certification, i.e., an attestation to the fact that you achieved something at some level.
    b. A chance to form strong bonds.
    c. A structure that encourages the completion of work.

    Some of this may be attainable purely online or to a degree online. Ultimately, forming bonds seems to require physical presence, the question is how much and how often repeated.

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