I love reading Seth Godin's blog. I subscribe to it, so I get a new update every day. Recently he had one entitled, "Perfect and Impossible" (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/02/perfect-and-impossible.html). In it, Seth talked about the music industry having been a perfect system, all the parts worked, everyone in it understood it, the steps and systems were known. A true disruption came from the outside, and it did so via copyright infringement... stealing. I have likened what needs to happen in higher ed to the same world as Napster, and later, iTunes. I stand by this belief, but like the collapse of the music industry, it appears that Colleges and Universities are not interested in saving themselves, they are interested in preserving their "Perfect" models.
The way that they are controlling the disruption is to create a second class education system. What could I possibly mean by that? MIT Open Courseware, MITx, The Open Courseware Initiative, now Coursera, and Udacity: all of these programs, and the many that are adjacent to them, exist to serve people who for whatever reason are unable to afford to go to first tier universities. I want to be clear, I said "afford" intentionally, because, with the few exceptions of people who sign up for things that they cannot complete, anyone who can complete these courses successfully could intellectually qualify. It is a matter of whether or not they can afford the time to go to an expensive, exclusive institution, or whether or not they could afford to pick up and move across the country, or whether they could afford the lost opportunity cost associated with not being able to support their families.
By doing so, the institutions who provide the courses are saying to students, "You may be smart, but you're in a different class. You cannot join our club." And so my point of view is that those institutions who cheerfully provide content for the Open Courseware Movement are simply barricading the door and throwing a shiny object to the demanding audience outside. It is a distraction, and it is (currently) not entirely useful. By denying qualified people (meaning those who have completed the work) access to degrees or some other endorsement, institutions are establishing a new educational plutocracy where the "rich" are enabled and embraced, and the middling and lower classes are given scraps by which they might educate themselves so that they can participate, but perhaps not really benefit, and certainly never enter the world of the elite.
I don't really like these programs because I feel that they maintain exclusion, and those unfortunate, qualified folks hungry for knowledge, are left to eat the proverbial crumbs off the floor. Americans love competition. We believe that competition is good. Competition IS good for advancing our economy, raising our game, and bringing about much needed change. But what we are experiencing in higher education is not true competition. The wealthiest among us can afford all of those freedoms: time, money, structure, social capital; all required to make elite higher education work. It is made worse by the fact that the institutions that were created to combat this problem, the Land and Sea Grant institutions have become part of the problem. They emulate the elite schools, in the increased competition for external dollars, these institutions seek out the products of the elite schools, and the problem reproduces itself in every generation of faculty. So how do we fix it? I'm not sure it can be fixed. It has to be disrupted. With any luck, the disruption will preserve what works, and expose the rest- leaving it open to change.