YouTube .EDU Hints at Possible Future of "Open Source Education"

YouTube’s recent release of its “.EDU” site which features channels and content from educational institutions hints at a possible “open source” future for education (particularly higher education). Grand Rapids Community College has a thriving YouTube channel as a result of the excellent work done by our Media Technologies department (which produces content for the Grand Rapids Public Schools as well as a number of local colleges and universities).

In fact, GRCC is one of the heavyweights in the new YouTube EDU site (as others have noticed, including Time Magazine in a recent article titled “Logging on to the Ivy League”); it has more content up than Harvard and almost as much as MIT. Many of the four-year universities in Michigan don’t even have YouTube channels.

Watching the potential of online courses leads me to this question: what is the difference between an online course and a traditional course? This question is important, because as online course content from top-tier universities is increasingly available for free through the web – they’re going to offer some serious competition to other education institutions.

One of the things the web does best is to free people from the geographic bonds that hold them; you’re no longer limited to the offerings at your local mall, dating pool, or social circles. The same is true of education.

I see a possible future where students from across the US (and around the world) take online courses from the best faculty at the best schools, and the role of regional higher education becomes to provide the necessary support services, lab space, proctoring and resources for those students to become credentialed.

That is to say, your semester (assuming there’s still a need to keep rigidly-defined calendars, which is less and less likely) looks something like this:

  • You fill your class schedule this semester with an online Chemistry class from M.I.T., an online English class from Yale, an online Social Science class from U.C. Berkley, and an online Ethics class from Oxford.
  • You watch podcasted lectures, participate in collaborative group exercises with Google Apps, and interact with the faculty (or their graduate assistants) in immersive virtual environments.
  • Then, when it comes time for tutoring, lab experiments or testing/assessment – you head to Grand Rapids Community College for the one-on-one instructional support and hands-on learning (which is GRCC’s true core competence as a “teaching” institution).

One particular aspect of that scenerio that is particularly promising in terms of creating a dramatic opportunity for regional education institutions is assessment. Currently the means we use to measure comprehension (standardized tests) are woefully-inadequate; they’re inherently biased with respect to culture and learning styles – yet they’re necessary in order to keep class sizes manageable while still being cost-effective.

If we’re free of some of those time constraints – suddenly a dramatic window opens up for personalized, one-on-one interview-style assessments of one’s ability to comprehend, master and think critically about course material.

The reasons this can’t be the near future are rapidly eroding away – which means that it’s an increasingly likely future. Something to consider.


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