Dead Institutions Beat: home-study degrees on a shoestring

Will the university be the next institution to fall to the onslaught of the internet? Probably not just yet, but the brick-and-mortar halls of learning are going to suffer badly against start-ups like StraighterLine, which offers online PhD-designed all-you-can-eat higher education courses… for just $99 a month. [via MetaFilter]

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

Here in the UK we have something called The Open University, which operates under a pretty similar distance-learning/subscription system… but not at that sort of bargain price-tag.

Decoupling quality higher education from temporal and financial restrictions is potentially a very disruptive technological step – not just for the US or other Western countries, but for the whole world. Those restrictions are what has traditionally deterred or prevented the less privileged from competing on qualifications in the employment marketplace, and outfits like StraighterLine could theoretically help reverse (or at least stabilise) the widening gap between the world’s rich and poor.

Of course, the prospect of even more people with degree-level qualifications might well devalue them even further, at least temporarily; the sheer number of courses here in the UK has left the job market saturated with unemployable graduates who have little to show for three years’ work (or partying) but a big chunk of debt. But if people who really want or need a practical or in-demand degree – and, more importantly, who are willing to work hard and quickly to get it – find themselves able to bypass the old institutions, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot less people going to college or university as a way of deferring the initial plunge into employment; free markets work in interesting ways.

One thought on “Dead Institutions Beat: home-study degrees on a shoestring”

  1. Basic literacy and numeracy should be available in most spoken and written languages (including some dead ones) in all media world wide for free. It is technically feasible and would repay tremendous benefits within months of starting.

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