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A Digital Education

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Internet puts you a few clicks away from the best college lectures in America.

StanfordCollege is expensive. But if you are willing to settle for an education and don’t need the extra frill of a degree, the Internet now offers a way to listen to first-rate instruction—the kind that would normally cost upwards of $40,000 per year—for free. I’m referring to the rise of university podcasts: recordings of classes, lectures, and special events that are catalogued and made available online to anyone with the inclination to listen.

Although it has been more than a decade since audio recordings of classes first appeared online—UC Berkeley began offering a small number of classes in 1995—the increased availability of high-speed Internet connections, paired with user-friendly distribution services such as Apple’s iTunes has lead to an explosion in their availability. In 2006, Berkeley’s program, perhaps the most vibrant, offered 82 courses—over 3,000 hours of material—in addition to several special events. Parts of this content, much of which is available with video as well as audio, were downloaded more than six million times last year. And although Berkeley’s program is particularly strong, it is far from an aberration. Most top-tier institutions now have a podcasting program of some sort, including Stanford, the University of Chicago, MIT, and the entire Ivy League. (A good listing of university podcasts is available through the Apple’s iTunes U or on the Open Culture weblog. An excellent collection of special events is available through the University Channel, administered by Princeton.)

Instruction that was once the privilege of a select few is now a public good, available to anyone with the inclination to listen.

So to what extent could you educate yourself for free? That depends. Universities typically do not place a comprehensive curriculum online. Rather, they focus on courses that will be most accessible to the public. As Jeremy Sabol, one of the administrators of Stanford’s program, told me, these tend to be larger introductory classes, where the instructor does most of the talking. Stanford’s program, like many others, tries to include courses of general appeal from a mix of disciplines. Advanced courses, especially those that are smaller and more discussion-based, are less likely to appear, in part because smaller classrooms are usually not equipped with the necessary recording equipment.

Nevertheless, an enterprising polymath could pass many a rainy day absorbed in high-quality intellectual material. She could enjoy her coffee with a refresher on Electricity and Magnetism from MIT’s Walter Lewin and spend the rest of the morning delving into the finer points of global financial markets with the University of Chicago’s Luigi Zingales. Stimulation throughout the afternoon could come from Princeton’s Andrew Moravcsik commenting on the future of democratization or Stanford’s Thomas Sheehan analyzing historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. A relaxing evening could be spent with Berkeley’s Hubert Dreyfus, ruminating about existentialism in literature and film.

Why do universities provide so much high quality material—which is normally created and sold at such a high price—for free? According to Adam Hochman, who co-manages Berkeley’s program, providing the classes and lectures is in keeping with the public university’s mission statement, which calls for it to “serve society as a center for higher learning.” Meanwhile, Stanford’s Sabol also sees podcasts as a hook to generate interest in the school. “We want to share some of the exciting things that are happening here.”

Generating interest, it turns out, is not a problem. Podcasting is tremendously popular among its diverse and rapidly expanding constituency. Berkeley, for one, has received deeply appreciative responses from US soldiers abroad, bedridden stroke victims, and advanced high school students who felt held back by their regular teachers. Said one fan of Berkeley’s program, “Your lectures have been a lifeline for me... My choices in life never afforded me the opportunity to get a great college level education, just a few community college courses... but I have been an avid reader of science and now with podcasting I can finally listen to the great lectures from great professors teaching the classes I wanted to take. It’s not completely Socratic, but it’s close enough for my situation.” The success of today’s nascent programs is likely a precursor to great expansion in the future. Berkeley, for instance, plans to increase the number of recording-enabled classrooms on its campus from twenty to two hundred.

One could conceivably fear that students would object to the distribution of podcasts on the grounds that universities should not give away for free the material for which they pay dearly. Instruction that was once the privilege of a select few is now a public good, available to anyone with the inclination to listen. But it seems that few if any such objections have been raised, perhaps because, as Hochman points out, taking a class in real time right in front of a professor creates an entirely different level of engagement—students have to follow course readings, prepare for tests, and interact with the instructor and classmates. Podcasting is no substitute for that experience.

But it can certainly make you popular at your next cocktail party.

Timothy J. Ryan is a research assistant for the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project.

Image credit: 'Stanford' by Flickr user Franco Folini.

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