I received an e-mail from James Loynd recently, commenting favorably on an appearance I made on PBS’s News Hour. Mr. Loynd asked, “What if the best professors in every department were to video tape their lectures? A student could them work his/her way towards a degree off campus. Even chat-room discussions with grad students could assist the students. Testing could be...not necessarily on campus, maybe even at your local YMCA.” Of course, this is not the first time the idea has been suggested, but the question arises: Why are we not moving aggressively to do something like this?
More specifically, why doesn’t someone—say, the Gates Foundation—hire 100 or so stellar professors in 20 disciplines to offer perhaps 150 to 200 absolutely superb courses online, with testing administered by an outside agency (say, the ACT, SAT, or Underwriter’s Laboratories)? Even paying each professor $100,000 per course and allowing for 100 percent overhead, this would cost $30- to $40-million. There would be some expenses for administration and a need to redo lectures every few years, but the whole thing is within the financial capacity of several foundations in the private sector. The upshot would be that a student taking about 32 of the courses would have the equivalent of a B.A. degree, and it could be offered to the student free (with modest per-student private or government subsidies) or at very modest cost.
If someone proposed to do this, of course, there would be all sorts of objections. Some would argue you need more disciplines included, more courses, etc. And who would accredit the institution issuing the degree? Most such objections are trivial or bogus—for example, a college student does not have to be offered detailed study in every discipline in order to acquire a body of knowledge over roughly a four-year period that is the equivalent of a decent-quality bachelor’s degree.
Some funds would be needed to institute the chat-room type discussion of material that Mr. Loynd envisions, and maybe evaluate some writing the students do (short or even longer papers).
It could be done by a private entrepreneur, or, better yet, by competing entrepreneurs—again, for a relatively modest price. The University of Phoenix could duke it out with Kaplan University, or even the public University College of the University of Maryland, for students.
To be sure, such a program would not be for everyone. For some, going to college is more a socialization experience than an academic one. For others, the direct, highly expensive personalized instruction using the same technology that Socrates used (talking to a group of students) is preferable and worth the expense. For some, training may require hands-on laboratory experiences that is difficult to provide completely online.
But for some others, an online approach has its advantages. The “Wikipedia” in the title to this blog suggests that perhaps the core of courses taught by superstars could be augmented by open-source courses provided by others with expertise. If we can offer very useful encyclopedias for free online, maybe we can do the same for other compilations and certifications of knowledge.
A variant on this theme is for commercial packagers of degrees to offer online programs that bring together courses taught at diverse universities or other non-university providers of material, such as Straighter Line. If the courses are taught by reputable scholars who teach regularly at accredited universities, and if they have a requisite amount of rigor, accreditation should come automatically. If the courses were cheap enough, perhaps accreditation would not even be necessary, as students would not need student loans in order to participate, and thus packagers could tell the U.S. Department of Education and the various accrediting groups to go fly a kite. Or, packagers could give students pre- and post-study examinations over things like critical learning skills—e.g., the Critical Learning Assessment—to demonstrate the general success of the program.
Higher education resists innovation. Yet ideas like that of James Loynd need to be vigorously explored. Universities spend billions annually researching everything under the sun—but precious little on R & D into their own business, specifically into cheap ways to disseminate higher forms of knowledge.