"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, January 20, 2012

Free College Education?

A fascinating article up on the Forbes web-page discusses the possibility of providing essentially a free college education for anyone who wants one through greater use of "crowd-sourcing" for instructors -- essentially calling on the vast number of professionals who would be willing to volunteer to teach courses in exchange for the networking and prestige of doing so, much as CLE courses for lawyers are taught gratis by practicing lawyers -- and also through greater use of technology for online courses, automated grading, etc.    I'm not sure that the cost would ultimately be free -- there are still transaction costs (read: friction) in creating, administering an monitoring any such program -- but the ideas are sound.    As Herbert Stein said, what can't continue, won't.   The current arc of college costs can't continue.   Something's got to give.

One note in particular stuck out for me:

A quirky company called Rosetta Stone has largely put college foreign language instruction out of business. For approximately $200/semester one can learn almost any language one wants—not quite free, but much cheaper and (apparently) more effective than the college classroom. Rosetta Stone is a good example of winner-take-all; it has cornered the market not because of some government license, nor because only their employees know languages, but because they are better and cheaper.

Why not do this with calculus, chemistry, psychology and all the rest? This will eventually happen. In each of those disciplines a product (or, hopefully, two or three competing products) will emerge that is manifestly better than anything any individual college can produce in-house.

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