Without much fanfare, college lectures are being put online, for free. MIT lectures can be downloaded from iTunes University, and you can watch Cal professors pontificate on your computer via YouTube. Is this some new trend? Do colleges feel threatened by Wikipedia? Something funny is going on. No one gives anything away for free without some ulterior motive.
I mean, don't they know college is big business? Right now, 17 million students are involved in higher education, some higher than others. As a business, college is growing faster than sales of multicolored Crocs. Since 1980, the population of students under 25 has grown 40 percent--and for those over 25, it's up even more at 52 percent. Is this what your neighbors are doing during the day? Could be. Even better (for colleges, anyway), since 2002 tuition has jumped 35 percent in real terms (that's adjusted for inflation, for you French-lit majors). And while financial aid is available, there is some $85 billion in student loans outstanding. Who is going to break the news to these kids that they could have bought a Mustang and watched that physics class for free on their laptop between shifts at Dunkin Donuts (which isn't even spelt right)?
Has anyone thought through this whole free lectures thing? If they give this stuff away on the Internet, doesn't that completely change the economics and bring the faux-Greek revival columns holding up lecture halls crashing down onto quads/Frisbee football fields across America?
Maybe not. I've now listened to and watched what seemed a semester's worth of lectures, and they induced flashbacks to my permanent seat in the back row fighting off the head whips at 8 A.M. on a Friday morning after dime beer night at the Fall Creek House. I got smarter by the nanosecond trying to decipher the words as MIT's Gang Chen rambled on about Nanoscale Transport, dreamed of -Gandhi during Cal's PACS 164B: Introduction to Nonviolence, and learned how to watch prime time detective shows during USC law professor Jody Armour's discussion of premeditated murder.
YouTube will tell you how many times these lectures have been watched, and so far viewership is less than a comparative religion class at Riyadh U. Harvard's $45,620/year assembly line is not yet at risk.
But something funky is going on. Let's test your recall of the transitive property. Lectures are free, college requires lectures, therefore college is worthless. Makes sense. But of course, college isn't worthless, not if you ever want to get a job. The lectures may have no value, but the sheepskin and transcripts certainly do--$200K please.
College is not optional. In the old days, college was the ticket out of the grimy Pennsylvania town and a certain life toiling in the steel mills--if you looked like Tom Cruise and could throw a football and make all the right moves. Today, it's a tortuous branding exercise to prove that you're too smart to wear a funny hat and offer to supersize those fries, but instead are deserving enough to sit in a cubicle and set up two-tier marketing promotions, which as far as I can tell are some bizarre mutation of supersizing (I couldn't find any marketing lectures online). But let's agree--college is anything but worthless. In our knowledge economy, it's your ticket to the job dance. So maybe you can give away the content, but without the proof of purchase diploma, no tango.
Or maybe, just maybe, something else is going on. Perhaps academics have finally gotten hip. They are surrounded by kids all day, a little bit of hipness is bound to rub off. Maybe these free lectures are just promotional materials. Try it in the comfort of your own home. If you like what you see, come drop 200 grand for the real deal.
It's what MTV used to be and YouTube is today. The videos promote music (which kids rip off anyway), and the band makes its profits touring cities and, hmm, college campuses selling overpriced concert tickets and soon-to-fade T‑shirts in the lobby. And I've got to admit, these lectures are very much like Madonna or Jay‑Z videos: They are confusing and completely unwatchable. No plot, lame visuals, talentless ranting. A little more skin and some better dance moves and professors would be the new role models in America.
But promotion only goes so far. There are deeper forces swirling through the bow-tie crowd. I put on my conspiracy theory tinfoil hat and it finally hit me: Today's professors are academics first and teachers a distant second. The best of them boast that they only have to teach one course each semester, as opposed to the two or three that young pups must endure before they are tenured.
In other words, this would be a great job if it weren't for the students. Research, a team of graduate students as underpaid serfs, papers in academic journals, a few talks at esoteric conferences--these are the paths to success in the academic world. Oh, and some well-paid consulting gigs on the side. Creating a video catalog of lectures and putting them up online--it's a brilliant move, don't you see? That way, pretty soon, you won't even have to show up Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 P.M. at Olin Hall Lecture Room 102. Just set up a projector and play the video. Better yet, just have the kids download it into their iPods. Update the lecture every decade or so whether you need to or not. This is the new face of higher education--tenured professors doing research who don't have to bother teaching courses ever again. And with email to replace office hours, you won't need any kind of personal contact at all with undergrads.
Think of the possibilities. There are physical limitations on how many kids can fit on campuses today. Arizona State is up to 50,000 undergrads while Harvard is stuck at 6,700. But digital real estate is infinite. Watch our courses at home. Take a sophomore year equivalency test and get 34 percent off your tuition at Amazon: For the low, low price of $30,000, you can tell friends--and employers--that you graduated from a small school in Cambridge. Brilliant. And it would work too, except for one thing. Parents have plans for that soon-to-be spare bedroom. Oh well, nice try.
Andy Kessler's most recent book is The End of Medicine: How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor.