In Cognitive Surplus Clay Shirky argues that the invention of movable type had three impacts on intellectual culture: it reduced the cost of publication, increased people's freedom to publish, and initially, lowered the quality of the things that were published. Over time, though, the increase in freedom brought about an increase in creativity, innovation, and learning. The sum total of the quality of published things has never returned to the glory days of publishing--there is much more dreck for sale today than when monks carefully illuminated manuscripts. But we are substantially better off as a culture, and people who want to publish are better off as well.
For educators concerned about the cost and quality of education, there is much to learn in Shirky's brief account. Two things come immediately to mind. The first is that colleges and universities cannot make meaningful progress on cost and quality without asking serious questions about freedom--Who will shape the curriculum? Under which rules? Who will decide what is good?
The second is that the key voices in this discussion need to be the potential producers of learning. By this I do not mean that students ought to choose. Nor do I mean that faculty or administrators ought to be the source of innovation in learning. Instead I mean that regardless of role, people who see themselves as creators of learning should be the ones who create it.
Shirky makes this point too, as he notes that technology makes it possible for people who were once only consumers to become collaborators. Online this means bloggers and coders and social entrepreneurs and all the other people who band together to jointly solve problems or have fun. In education I suspect this means crowdsourcers--people who can call together experts in many fields--both content and delivery--to create custom educations. You might imagine a day when colleges and universities collaborate with their students to pull together courses and learning experiences from around the world, leading to an education that is cost-effective, high-quality, and, in the political sense, free.