Saturday, March 26, 2011

Learning from; or starting a college and getting paid

Over the past couple of years I have blogged several times about what it would take to start a college or university today:

Here and here I posted about the notion of "Charter Universities"--where states would adopt the model used for charter schools to encourage innovators to provide higher education as well.

Here I mused about whether an "emergent" model of change could lead to the creation of a college.

This essay noted some of the "mysteries' in education--things we don't currently do well--and proposed ways to arrange a school that made money by responding to them.  And this one wondered how you could monetize learning as opposed to classes.  These posts have mused about ways to make use of open learning resources.  And this one suggested that private universities ought to start junior colleges.

Having said all this, there are essentially 3 big barriers to starting a college or university today.  The first is the cost associated with building a campus.  Even schools like the  University of Phoenix that rent their buildings have significant space costs.  And the cost of building a new campus, especially one that includes science, would be enormous.  The second is accreditation.  Without accreditation, students cannot get federal financial aid, and without accreditation, diplomas have almost no meaning.  But getting accredited means many years of work, years during which whatever students you can gather have to take it on trust that their expenditures will produce something that has meaning.

People who have responded to these two issues have often done it by focusing on supporting learning online.  The most famous example today is Khan Academy--a learning center than began on YouTube and now boasts thousands of videos on discrete topics in math, science, and other areas.  Khan Academy has hundreds of thousands of fans, and just got an infusion of money and support from Bill Gates.

But these free online learning models have not resolved the accreditation problem, and in fact aren't really interested in becoming colleges or universities.  And they often run on a non-profit model, where they rely for funding on donations.

All of which makes the recent re-launch of more interesting.  Learnable is the first site I've seen that allows producers of learning content to get paid by the users of that content.

 Looked at one way, Learnable is like, a site that allows craftspeople to sell their wares.  Looked at another way, though, it is a combination learning management system and back office for a college or university.  With Learnable, then, a group of people who want to start an actual college or university have access to the resources to run the school, manage the courses, and handle much of the financial end of the business.  I wouldn't be surprised to see new, small colleges and universities pop up on Learnable, either as a supplement to regular face-to-face courses, or as the platform for their entire institutions.

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