By Richard Vedder
The front page of the New York Times today has a fascinating story about a 71 year old physics professor at M.I.T., Walter H.G. Lewin. Lewin is a master teacher, who meticulously prepares each lecture that is videotaped. He uses a lot of ingenuity, zany humor, enthusiasm and showmanship to promote concepts (e.g., the physics of pendulums) that brings physics alive to students at M.I.T.
Yet any of us can watch Dr. Lewin's lectures --free. M.I.T. has put his videotaped lectures online via the OpenCourse Ware of M.I.T. People from around the world are fascinated about how he makes physics sound exciting, even beautiful. Similar charismatic teachers offer instruction in other subjects --and not just at M.I.T. (Yale, for example, is beginning to offer several popular courses).
After all the gloom and doom of my recent blogs about accreditors who don't want to push for higher standards, a state higher education commission (New York's) that has a worse-than-useless report, etc., this is a inspiring story about the potential to use technology to expand learning in a high quality way at lower costs.
Someone should (and no doubt will) say to potential students, "watch Prof. Lewin's lectures, read some assigned reading material (posted on the Internet) and take several exams externally administered (say by ACT or the College Board), and we will give you credit. String together 32 or so of these courses, and you will get a degree.
At the moment there are tons of problems. Prof. Lewin and others, appropriately, may want royalties. An accrediting organization has to okay the arrangement, which is easier said than done. M.I.T., Yale and other open source schools might stop putting lectures up on the Web, demanding a cut of the revenues. A good entrepreneur, however, can overcome these obstacles and created a low cost web-based university that offers quality instruction, even if it does not have the country club or resort like facilities that residential college students want as part of their $200,000 learning experience. Three cheers for Prof. Lewin, M.I.T., and others who have made the idea discussed above a possibility.