Why isn’t University free?
How long before a major brand University realizes that they can use their brand to almost instantly build an online audience in the millions, sets tuition to zero, and starts broadcasting (and archiving) every lecture at the highest possible quality, complemented by associated online discussion fora, real life meetup groups so students in a given area can regularly meet and discuss the material, broadcasts into Second Life, and so on? Essentially, build an entire economy of services and community around the basic product such a University already offers – lectures by some of the smartest people in the world.
How would this work out financially? At the moment, if a big brand University has 10,000 students each paying (on average) $20,000 / year to attend, that’s $200 million in revenue. They can make the same revenue with 5 million regular viewers, each worth $40 to advertisers. Given Facebook’s admittedly somewhat ludicruous valuation ($300 / user), that seems a trifle.
There are other difficulties and objections, of course, beyond financial viability:
- Q: Isn’t one of the main points of University to act as a hub for clever young people to come together? And don’t they need to be together to get the full benefit of lectures and so on? A: Yes, but you could get a large fraction of the benefit by doing local community building like I described above, without the $80k price tag. And since so many more people would be involved the aggregate benefit would be far larger. If it’s really that important, then presumably some people will be willing to pay a premium, and still attend the Harvard (or whoever) lectures.
- Q: Don’t students need real life interaction with the lecturer? A: This is true, in part. But, again, you can get a lot of the same benefit through well-run discussion forums, both online and offline.
- Q: Don’t the Professors need the students around to stimulate them? A: Much of the stimulation comes at the grad student level, and at that level, I don’t think this proposal would change much. Harvard (or whoever) would carry on with their graduate program, just as before, since it’s largely based on research, not classes. At the undergrad level there would be a loss.
- Q: What about exams, accreditation, degrees? A: These could, of course, still be offered, by setting up test centres in major urban areas.
- Q: Wouldn’t we end up in a world with many fewer Universities? A: Probably, yes. But far more people would get a far higher quality education.
(This question inspired in part by Chris Anderson).
Update: Someone has criticised my comparison of advertising revenue with Facebooks’ valuation. That’s fine – the two are quite different, and it’s fair to ask for a more direct comparison. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good sense of the numbers here. Certainly, most sites make far less than $40 / user per year. But then, I think this site will get a great deal more (monetizable) attention from its users than your average internet site.