There's an article on the Guardian today (one of several recently) about free online university courses. These are offered by companies like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, and the content is provided by 'proper' universities. They don't charge, and they allow thousands and thousands of people, from all over the world, to follow a module from a respected institution, without having to be in the country or paying the fees. Free education for all!
Obviously there's lots of practical issues, about all aspects of this. These thousands of people can't have their work marked by a human, so it only works well for subjects that can be marked by a computer (unless you go the crowdsourcing route, as one of the pioneers of this method suggests). It's only possible to offer this for free because the academics are paid by universities which are funded in part by students who do pay fees. You miss out on the other aspects of being a student. Et cetera.
The biggest difference between this method and actually attending university is of course the quality - it's never going to be the same watching videos as it is having a real human expert to talk to and learn from, and face-to-face class time. But there are some aspects of it which are worth looking at. One obvious benefit is that people who are otherwise unable to attend university or pay Open University fees can still get access to university-level education. For them, it doesn't matter so much that it's not quite as good as the 'real' thing, because anything is better than nothing. If it became the normal way to learn, well, then it's not up to scratch. But is that right? Is it OK to say 'anything is better than nothing so it's all right that it's not as good'? The pioneers of this learning paradigm have an ideal in mind of free education for all. Those people who can't pay for university or can't physically attend should have the same opportunity as those who can, assuming equal ability.
That's another thing - there's no entrance requirements for these courses. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because entrance requirements are only really useful if you need to limit intake, and you don't when it's online (a Massive Online Open Course: MOOC).
One aspect I like is similar to how Open University works: you can just take one module if you want to, rather than a whole degree. With OU you can build them up into a degree or diploma, which is not yet the case with MOOCs, but give them time. It means that a person who just needs or wants an introduction to a subject can have it in a structured way with no obligation.
Most interestingly for me, at the moment, is the implication it has on the way we teach in universities. This MOOC thing allows a potentially lot better use of class time. At the moment, we give lectures and seminars. Lectures vary from lecturer to lecturer, from a simple stand at the front of the room and read out your notes, to a more interactive experience for the students when they have to do more than just sit and listen. Lectures have been around a long time and they've never gone away, partly because you need to be able to impart a lot of information to a lot of people at once and it's the most economical way to do that. You could tell them to go and read, but what do they read? Most of the time you need to explain the complicated stuff that written in books and journals, and even introductory textbooks just seem to make more sense if someone explains it to you. The reading is supplementary to the lecture, giving the student more information which they can go and understand after having the 50-minute explanation of the basics. But all the same, lectures seem slightly wasteful.
Even if you try and make them as interesting as possible, and make that there is some benefit to actually being there rather than just reading the slides, an alternative is to combine the MOOC idea with the current system. What if we did video lectures, and then used the class time for something else? Explaining difficult concepts, working through problems, that sort of thing. Of course the extra 50% teaching time and preparation would need to be factored into teaching loads, or teaching hours adjusted, but we can do that. Many classrooms are equipped with the technology to record a lecture, or with YouTube we can do it from our desks. Sites like TED, and people like RSAnimate, have shown that people are really super keen to watch videos in order to learn stuff. We might as well embrace it before it overtakes us.