The recent decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make freely available on the Internet almost all course material  is a significant break from the tradition and formality that typically characterises the field of education. One only has to think of how Latin continues to be widely used in research, despite its complete demise from common usage, and how archaic academic traditions continue to be pervasive on university campuses - and the departure from norm by MIT is made even more outrageous. True, innovative methods of distance education have been applied by many schools for some time now - one is reminded of universities such as the University of Phoenix (which provides primarily off-campus education) and Monash University (which has various campuses in Australia as well as one in Malaysia) - but never before by an institution which could ride on the strength of its reputation and long history of academic excellence.
Which makes the choice by MIT all the more fascinating. It is a reflection of a belief long held by academics but never fully - if ever - embraced: that formal methods of education may not be the best reflection of an individual's ability, drive, or intelligence; yet for want of economical alternatives, it was the best available. The introduction of the New Economy and the Internet has changed the fundamental paradigm for the purpose, as well as the delivery, of education. In an increasingly knowledge-based society, the development of human capital is crucial for the continued advancement of economies, and for countries to provide the competitive and comparative advantage needed to attract investment and capital in a world where both flow with scant regard to borders. Similarly, there has been an intensified recognition of the fact that the equipping of graduates with formal qualifications does not substitute for innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.
The economics of traditional, classroom-based education has centred on the need for young, bright minds to signal - in an environment where information asymmetries and uncertainty distressingly abound - their individual capabilities. Typically, an intelligent individual would make the choice of attending college over entering the workforce immediately upon graduation from high school if he feels that the investment made in the three or four expensive years would pay off in terms of higher future income.  The choice is made precisely because the effect of the signal is convincing to enough employers. The knowledge-based economy changes all that, because employers no longer look narrowly at the degree certificate. Inventiveness and a propensity for risk now feature as significant components in the equation, and the chances of success for a self-educated talent are equally promising as one who has gone through worn and tired path.
On the supply side, the providers of education need to address a different playing field. With the Internet as a medium, the marginal costs of providing an additional unit of education - absent the teacher-student interaction - are now minimal. Course material can be posted online and interested individuals can either download the required documents for printing or peruse them electronically. Questions and answers can be highlighted and posted in forums, and discussion groups make learning from other fellow students much less subject to time and distance constraints. In order for universities to continue providing value, there must be a drive towards customisation and personalisation of the learning experience, else the student is better off studying on his or her own, with resources such as those provided by MIT.
However, there are intellectual property issues to contend with. How will professors react when others collect their material and utilise it in a minimally modified form? Does it create disincentives for them to provide quality materials? Or is the satisfaction of reaching a worldwide audience enough reward in itself to compensate for lack of attribution or remuneration? The truth is, the answer would probably lie between the two polar cases. Universities, no doubt, will continue obtaining funding from public coffers, and inevitably educators will write books that will be published and sold. The profiteering from course materials already exists now, from online sites that provide notes and examination papers wholesale.
What does this mean for the local universities, and campus-based education in general? In the near future, probably nothing much. Formal qualifications still provide very good guidelines for employers seeking candidates from the job market, and this purpose will continue to be best met by local schools. Professors might even benefit from the material provided by MIT for the purposes of preparing their own courses. In the medium to long run, however, there will be increasing pressure on local universities to provide similar materials of their own for free, and the complexion of the job market will morph to better reflect the reality of the conditions created by the New Economy. What is most important is that they embrace the changes and not resist them, and be prepared to ride the wave of change wrought by technological advances and not be engulfed by it.
1. "MIT to make nearly all course materials available free on the World Wide Web", MIT press release, Apr 4th, 2001.
2. The analysis, of course, simplifies the choice to essentially a monetary one. Other factors - such as a sense of achievement, the pursuit of knowledge, or even the absence of any other compelling alternatives to attending college - would no doubt feature in the decision; but these do not detract from the crux of the argument.