I read an article in the Chronicle that discussed the formation of a new online university, the Peer 2 Peer University. It is a collaborative, global effort of at least ten distinguished academics and administrative volunteers, that are teaming up to create an online study network that offers short university-level classes. It is described as an online book club with a final exam. P2P is planning to offer its first set of classes in January 2009, and the course list currently consists of:
Media in Developing Countries
The target audience includes retirees with a thirst to learn, professionals that want to enhance their education, but do not have time to enroll in a full degree program, and eager students with low-income.
The idea of offering free or low cost online courses is certainly not the first of its kind, as there have been other attempts. Yale University currently offers fifteen lecture series in a wide variety of liberal arts disciplines. Actual lecture series at the university were recorded and made available for free download to anyone with access to the internet.
Open source education is still in its infant stage, but appears to have some growth potential, especially in lieu of the rising costs of attending the bricks & mortar university. It would seem probable that the universities will collectively oppose the movement in a similar fashion that the recording industry has tried to thwart file-sharing. One of the early barriers for the P2P Univeristy has been action by the employers of the "star professors" to disassociate the university's name and reputation with the online community.
From the university's perspective, professors should not divert their time that is required to perform their job function (teaching, research) to work on such a project, but if the same professor wants to volunteer his/her spare time, then that should not be an issue. Some proponents even argue that this online learning network is ongoing research, although I'm guessing that administration is not going to buy that argument, especially when the long-term prospect of the research is a potential threat to the underlying asset - the university campus.
Personally, I believe that such online learning networks can only help to facilitate communication among a broader global audience in such a way that may actually enhance ideas and learning outcomes. Rather than fight the initiative, schools should figure out how to make use of the technology to increase their productivity and lower their operating costs.
There is a growing demand for distance learning and a lack of response by the traditional suppliers. This has resulted in a growing number of strictly online universities, often the initiative of entrepreneurs who are reacting to market conditions in an effort to capture a profit. This is good for competition and innovation, as the traditional model of higher education is in need of revamping. Is the Ivory Tower missing out on a golden opportunity to increase enrollment, lower costs, increase productivity, and ultimately, reduce the cost for the consumer?