How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education

Free online courses, Wiki universities, Facebook-style tutoring networks -- American higher education is changing.

Peer2Peer is not the only attempt to bridge the gap between free material and cheap education. The online University of the People, founded by Shai Reshef, who made his fortune in for-profit education, signed up its first class this fall -- 300 students from nearly 100 countries. While it has yet to get accreditation, the not-for-profit plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty; fees would add up to about $4,000 for a full four-year degree.

President Barack Obama has directed $100 billion in stimulus money to education at all levels, and he recently appointed a prominent advocate of open education to be undersecretary of education (Martha Kanter, who helped launch the 100-member Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources and the Community College Open Textbook Project). Meanwhile, outfits such as Flat World and Knewton are attracting venture funding (see "5 Startups to Watch"). The Carnegie Foundation's Casserly is helping existing open-courseware projects generate metrics that demonstrate their value to universities. "We need to figure out the models for this stuff," she says. "If it were easy, it wouldn't be such a fun challenge."

The transformation of education may happen faster than we realize. However futuristic it may seem, what we're living through is an echo of the university's earliest history. Universitas doesn't mean campus, or class, or a particular body of knowledge; it means the guild, the group of people united in scholarship. The university as we know it was born around AD 1100, when communities formed in Bologna, Italy; Oxford, England; and Paris around a scarce, precious information technology: the handwritten book. Illuminated manuscripts of the period show a professor at a podium lecturing from a revered volume while rows of students sit with paper and quill -- the same basic format that most classes take 1,000 years later.

Today, we've gone from scarcity of knowledge to unimaginable abundance. It's only natural that these new, rapidly evolving information technologies would convene new communities of scholars, both inside and outside existing institutions. The string-quartet model of education is no longer sustainable. The university of the future can't be far away.