Some imagine a situation in which the bulk of introductory course materials are online, as videos or interactive environments; students engage with the material when convenient and show up only for smaller seminars. “In an on-demand environment, they’re thinking, ‘Do we really need to show up face to face at 8 a.m. with 500 other students to take Psychology 101?’ ” Mr. Schonfeld says. [...]
Mr. Schonfeld sees still more potential in “unbundling” the four elements of educating: design of a course, delivery of that course, delivery of credit and delivery of a degree. “Traditionally, they’ve all lived in the same institutional setting.” Must all four continue to live together, or can one or more be outsourced?
It's a good question. Large lecture classes are sufficiently impersonal and non-interactive that it'd make little or no difference whether you're there in person or just watching it on video. But of course some professors are much better at lecturing than others. These two points together suggest that the vast majority of large intro classes could actually be vastly improved by replacing their local lectures with links to videos of world-class lectures. The role of the local college would then merely be to provide the Teaching Assistants to (i) run small precept sections where students can discuss the lecture material, ask questions, etc., and (ii) grade assignments.
One possible obstacle to such reform, at least at high-prestige schools/departments, is that students may want to affiliate with famous professors (or "high status folks", as Robin would say), even if they aren't the best teachers. But that still leaves plenty of large lecture courses currently being led by people who are neither famous professors nor brilliant teachers. It seems that these, at least, would benefit from outsourcing the lectures.
Some hope to implement a 'proof of concept' by building alternative educational institutions rather than reforming the existing mainstream:
Edupunks — the term for high-tech do-it-yourself educators who skirt traditional structures — are piloting wiki-type U’s that stitch together open course material from many institutions and combine it with student-to-student interaction. [...] “Having a degree is a signal,” she says. “It’s a signal to employers that you’ve passed a certain bar.” Here’s the radical part: Ms. Paharia doesn’t think degrees are necessary. P2PU is working to come up with alternative signals that indicate to potential employers that an individual is a good thinker and has the skills he or she claims to have — maybe a written report or an online portfolio.
I'd like for this to work, but I suspect it won't, at least if Bryan Caplan is right that employers care about college degrees as a signal of conformity and not just intelligence. Home college makes one look 'weird', even if you can produce high-quality academic work. So I suspect that this is another one of those cases (like open access publishing) where reforming established institutions is more likely to lead to lasting success than is attempting to create new ones.