Is there any way to make higher education affordable?
We need to create a dramatically new approach to higher education, but not too different. My concept takes advantage of special teachers I call great lecturers, and the international organization that the internet makes possible. I once had a business plan to do this, but I ran into resistance and I didn't follow through. I still think it will work, and I expect that someone soon will take this or a similar approach. It will make university education affordable not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world. It will make superb higher education accessible not only to those few who can afford to devote full time to it, but to those who can only take one course at a time.Here is my idea: create an international internet-based university. Okay, that's not new, but listen to the rest.1. Don't try to abolish the lecture (that seems to be at the top of the list for most computerized learning.) Rather, let's find the few really great lecturers, and record their lectures. It takes a special ability and experience to teach a class of 500 or more students, but there are such people. We can find them and record them. These lecturers will be very well paid. The same lectures will be used over many years, unless the professor wishes to update them (at Berkeley, when I first had this idea, I actually enlisted a half dozen professors who I felt would qualify--there was interest!).2. Make those lectures free, available online, for anyone who wants to watch them, anywhere in the world (my own lectures for 2006 are on YouTube; I've received emails of appreciation from people in 99 different countries, so far.)3. If someone wants to earn a degree, then they sign up to use the lecture as part of a course with the goal of getting course credit. This will cost money, but (I hope) not too much. Enrollment is entirely open. There will be no entrance exam. No course will have a pre-requisite, although it will have a list of suggested courses to take first. The great lecturer will be paid proportional to the number of students that take the course for credit. You can take the course over and over until you pass, if you wish, but you have to pay each time.4. Students will have to obtain books, but rather than use the best books, we'll arrange for relatively inexpensive books online. Maybe they could be free. The books can be cheap, because the goal is to have huge classes, taken by tens of thousands of students or more. Some of the best textbook writers and publishers might eventually be attracted, if the circulation is sufficiently large (Note: the cost of the textbook, as is well known to those of us who have written them, is not in the paper or binding. It is usually in the hard work that goes into making them, marketing them, and selling them.).5. Homework is entirely optional. If you do the homework, there is a small additional fee to pay for the grading. Or you could form grading groups to grade each other's homework. Passing the course depends only on the exams.6. There will be a local professor, not as special as the great lecturer, but someone who can answer questions and (maybe) grade homework. The discussion sections will have about 10 to 20 students. They can be from anywhere in the world, but they are organized by the international university. These local professors will grade homework problems assigned by the online lecturer. In some locations, the number of students in a class may be less. The lecturer will be paid according to the enrollment, with a strict limit of 20. If several lecturers are available, students can pick the ones they want. Evaluations of all lecturers, from previous students, will be available.7. Exams will be written explicitly by the international university. They will be suggested by the great lecturer, but there will be a separate team that writes them. The great lecturer will check over them to make sure that they test what he/she wants.8. Exams will be proctored by a separate organization whose sole duty is to proctor the exams.9. It will not be easy to pass the exams. They will be tough. The level will be comparable to that at one of the great US universities. As a result, the degree will be worth something. I would not be surprised to find only a few percent of the students passing. The others will still benefit, but they will not earn credits towards a degree.10. Initially, the degree might be given in the name of some well-established university. I tried to see if I could get the University of California at Berkeley to offer such a degree, but there was much opposition from the faculty--despite the fact that the graduates would be provably accomplished. Perhaps we need to create a new university, named after the benefactor who initially funds the project. Of course, the goal is for the university to be profitable, while charging an extremely low fee.11. Those who wish to take the course in the developing world would pay less, since (presumably) their local professors would be able to live locally at a lower cost of living.12. All the lectures could be dubbed to be in the local language. And the books could be translated, etc. This becomes feasible if the courses are truly worldwide and lots of students sign up.13. Initially, the majors allowed would emphasize technology and language skills. Eventually broader choices could become available. I would like to see the university emphasize a liberal arts degree, but it would probably start with STEM. Even so, all students would be required to take challenging courses in language skills.14. Some people worry that the "university experience" will be lacking. We can invent methods to try to fill in for that. We can also argue at length, about what that means, and how big the loss will be. I expect that many of the students of the international university will be older, people studying part time, maybe taking only one course at a time (instead of 5), hoping to get a degree slowly but surely.15. Encourage discussion groups online, perhaps patterned after Quora. Each discussion group will have a local professor to monitor, but that person will not be the primary person to answer questions. That will be mostly other students. Students will quickly learn that answering questions from other students is an excellent way to learn.There are some remaining details, primarily organizational, and methods to avoid cheating (e.g. making sure that you can't pay someone else to earn credit for you), and ways to make sure that textbooks are not extensively copied for free, unless we make them available for free. There are lots of ways to address those issues (and we have these issues at the existing universities too). But I hope I've said enough to give the general idea.