College for $99 a Month

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“…these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.”

Many interesting things about this development and others like it. On the one hand it is wonderful that the approach puts learners in control, provides materials and community, all for a single low fixed monthly price that lifts barriers to education for many that would otherwise be excluded. The model makes perfect economic sense as long as there are not too many students like the one described in this article, who worked 18 hours a day to get her qualifications. On the other hand it is another step towards the commoditisation of the creation of knowledge, a market-driven approach in which only the strong will survive.

I’m currently reading Howard Bloom’s magnificent ‘Global Brain’ which makes a forcible point for the need for diversity generators: non-conformist approaches that send out feelers into the evolutionary landscape and explore possible futures and different ways of being. Market-driven colleges of the type described in this article are what Bloom calls conformity enforcers: despite catering for individuals so well they must necessarily avoid the unprofitable avenues and, in so doing, reinforce the status quo even more than our traditional institutions (magnified still further by their use of bought-in commercial educational course offerings).

For all their many many faults, our traditional universities are pretty good diversity generators: the ivory tower is not all bad inasmuch as it affords scope and freedom to explore beyond the boundaries of practical and economically viable concerns. Most of the time this leads nowhere but, just occasionally, it enables breakthroughs that simply wouldn’t happen in a more pragmatic world. More importantly than the exploration of ideas new to the world, perhaps, is that it also offers that space for anyone who is able to join in – a space for young people in particular to grow and explore their boundaries and, sometimes, to leap over them. Our universities and colleges are in desperate need of reform but, in the process, as a society we must keep their valuable functions.

I hope we in the institutional sector of higher education find another battle ground to fight on than in the increasingly crowded space of cheap and flexible courses. Apart from anything else, we will certainly lose that battle.

Universities still have a dominant role in the creation of at least some kinds of new knowledge so it would make sense to take advantage of that. When universities first formed it was because they made it easier for people to come and hang out with great scholars and become part of a rich scholarly learning community. I reckon we should return to our roots here. What universities (at least currently) can offer that education-as-a-commodity brokers cannot yet aspire to is the opportunity to not only read the books but to hang out with the people who write them.

However, this might change.

An interesting and growing trend is that many of the great and the good in the guru category are reaching out beyond the walled garden into networked communities, notably in blogs and social networks that have little or nothing to do with the institutions in which they work. Most institutions short-sightedly offer very little support for that kind of outreach (I am very lucky to work for two that do). What they *can* (and sometimes do) offer is the opportunity to be part of gurus’ small groups, rather than just their broader networks. If I were running StraighterLine then I’d probably want to start to poach that territory too. Once that starts to happen then the old gang needs a pretty good strategy to deal with it.
Created:Sat, 05 Sep 2009 22:04:35 GMT

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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